Sydney performance: killer logic

Keith Gallasch

My memory of Romeo Castelluci’s Giulio Cesare at the 2000 Adelaide Festival (RT 36, p22) is frighteningly vivid. Although a substantial variation on the text and themes of Shakespeare’s play, it served nonetheless as a radical reading of the classic, the problems of the protagonists writ large and displaced into bodily distortions and the wasteland generated by civil war made devastating almost beyond imagining. Benedict Andrews’ production for the Sydney Theatre Company is, instructively, a very different creature, revealed in the portrayal of an altogether cooler, pragmatic culture as epitomised in Robert Cousin’s set—a bleak cut-away concrete amphitheatre, evoking both the senate house of ancient Rome and the brutalism of modern stadiums. Here there are gross entertainments straight out of Abu Ghraib prison, a fairy floss seller, thuggery and conspiratorial gatherings, but the mood is of restraint and paranoia. This is epitomised in the portrayal of the crowd, so pivotal in Shakespeare’s Roman plays. Andrews has disappeared the crowd, but in very revealing ways.

First seen, the crowd comprises surreally masked, distracted and isolated individuals scattered across the amphitheatre. They hardly warrant the lecturing and hectoring by their betters in the opening scene. After Caesar’s death they become mere noises-off during the orations of Brutus and Anthony: none is physically present, their whisperings and calls transmitted through loudspeakers on stands placed about the Forum. It’s as if the crowd is mere background noise to the great political machinations taking place. So it is today, any politician invoking public opinion or a silent majority is bound to be wielding a fiction. The focus in this Julius Caesar is a very interior one, full of difficult choices and populated by the ghosts of the victims of political logic.

Brutus (Robert Menzies) looks like a harried home body, hair wildly tousled, dressed in a red woolly with white shirt sticking out, certainly a very interior, unfashionable man, marked by his anxieties at very first sighting and not someone who deals with the world, conspirators or Cassius face to face. Andrews choreographs the action so that this isolation, political and domestic, is unmissable. Cassius (Frank Whitten), dressed in a suit, is a watchful businessman, physically relaxed, mentally alert, another man who keeps his distance. Both actors speak with a quiet intensity in a delivery that is lucid, the poetry more conversational than sung, slow and considered, and true to the inexorable logic of the play as it moves towards Caesar’s death. And slow and intense the first half is, capped by a slo-mo murder in mime and Brutus’ washing of the body…in blood—as if he, like Lady Macbeth, has come face to face with the enormity of his crime and nothing will wash it away.
After Anthony’s speech (Ben Mendelsohn playing a truly blunt man, all the rhetoric in the shape of the argument rather than in flourish) many a production slips into decline—there are no heroics to be had in the bickering between Brutus and Cassius or in the nuances of loyalty tested by pragmatism, or in the pathos of Brutus’ suicide. Andrews now accelarates his production and wisely concertinas a number of scenes into one, set at a long table lit only by hundreds of candles. Brutus, Cassius, allies and the ghosts of the recently deceased sit on one side looking out over the audience. Forced to avoid eye contact throughout and driven by the staccato structure this scene yields from Brutus and Cassius an unprecedented emotional intensity that reverberates beyond private tragedy to the destruction of the very republic the pair were defending. It’s a nightmarish scene that builds to sudden release when Brutus and Cassius do finally face each other and Cassius accepts his friend’s strategy, although knowing it means defeat. Andrews’ approach here has a power that might have advantaged the production elsewhere; in this scene it gripplingly prepares us for demands of the play’s final bleak moments. This is a fine, engrossing, sometimes visionary Julius Caesar.

In progress

The Sydney performance scene appears to have been quiet in recent months, but there’s a lot of backroom activity. Showings of works in progress in Performance Space’s Headspace, its hybrid performance laboratory, revealed a number of pieces already far advanced in vision and realisation. Branch Nebula’s Project No 6 (shown with the support also of Performing Lines) seamlessly and erotically fuses skateboarding, BMX-biking, acrobatics and breakdancing in various partnerings—it sounds unlikely but it works beautifully with a hypnotic intensity and not a little physical virtuosity. Karen Therese showed Y. Smith, part 2 of the Sleeplessness trilogy, this time investigating and recreating the life of her mother in moments both delicately intimate and shocking, accompanied by magical images from Margie Medlin. Melbourne’s Neil Thomas and David Wells, as Two Bare Light Globes, gently humoured us with improvised tales and new songs about what it means to be a man in Man Talk. Jeff Stein and collaborators in Il Ya led their audience into one of the strangest experiences encountered in contemporary performance in recent years. Inspired by Emmanuel Levinas the work takes us into spaces that are both physically and philosophically dark, and hard to describe. Stein and company are off to Italy to develop the work further in Romeo Castelluci’s studio.

At Drill Hall, Critical Path presented German dancer and choreographer Antje Pfundtner (interview p12) in a remarkable solo performance for a small audience after the workshop she’d been running for local choreographers. Combining unusual shapings of the body and tales from her own and other’s lives, Pfundtner is charismatic, her performance fluid and idiosyncratic. It’s hoped that Pfundtner will soon return to Australia to perform her work publicly and conduct another workshop.

Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare, director Benedict Andrews, designer Robert Cousins, costumes Alice Babdidge, lighting Damien Cooper, sound/composer Max Lyandvert, Sydney Theatre Company, Wharf 1, opened July 1; Headspace, Performance Space, July 18-Aug 28

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 38

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2005
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