To thwart Caesar’s ambition, the senators conspire against her in an iconic and bloody betrayal. But that is not the end of William Shakespeare’s second Roman tragedy.
The first of Theatre Erindale’s 2023/24 studio productions features two distinct casts, performing two unique interpretations of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Opening night, I saw Cast A directed by Andrea Runge. They alternate with Cast B directed by David Matheson. The program reads, “See both! Compare and contrast!”
After a sold-out opening weekend, performances resume November 16–18, 2023 in the MiST Theatre.
For now, I can only comment on Cast A. The abundant parallels in their performance alone make the logic of staging two versions of the play clear. Back-to-back warnings from Portia (Jasmine Brough) to Brutus (Jacob Klick) and Calpurnia (Senzenina De Freitas) to Caesar (Maggie Tavares); the trio of Cassius (Zoe Saum), Casca (Molly Tice), and Brutus of the first half juxtaposed with Mark Antony (Madison Toma-Dame), Calpurnia, and Octavius (Jasmine Brough) in the second; and the violence between the senators and amongst the Romans are far from the only examples.
Julius Caesar made successful use of the parameters of a studio production. The simplicity of the black box and drama blocks not only emphasized the performances, but the performances relayed a clear story to the audience. The ensemble’s strengths in embodying distinct characters and investment in the immediate action shone in the well-paced and dynamic production.
I most appreciated the clarity presented through minimalism. The reduction of design to only the integral elements supported an understanding of the play because they were identifiable. Passed notes carry imperceptible information in the play. The perceptible differences in paper made them trackable. Additionally, the colour-coded costuming made allegiances and doubling apparent.
Even without costume changes, each actor brought distinct characterization and awareness of their role in the narrative. Brough’s differentiation between Portia and Octavius stands out. As do Toma-Dame’s and Tavares’ treatment of their respective rhetoric. The attention to where political shifts occur made the plot easy to follow, an impressive task with the intricate multitudes of influences in the world of Julius Caesar.
The tragedy of the play lies in the takeaway that overconfidence obscures other possibilities. Fatally, the characters mostly can’t contend with this idea. However, the audience observing the action unfold may. Julius Caesar asks for the interrogation of strongly held beliefs, even at the expense of egos.
In Greek terms, hubris is an overarching hamartia that I would not apply to Caesar alone. Unfortunately, in the play, Casca cannot relay the information of a speech given in Greek: “For mine own part, it was Greek to me.” Language intended to be understood by select audiences is a political strategy employed by the characters of Julius Caesar. This is one moment of different characters making different meanings for the same events. This hints at parallels to theatre audiences.
Julius Caesar is a tragedy. Unsurprisingly, then, characters die. The ensemble brings palpable urgency and grief to the tragedy unfolding. Furthermore, the contrasting effects of each ghost sequence are a highlight. However, spoiler alert: if there is a blackout, a body is probably leaving the stage. In comparison to the intelligent use of space and strong transitions throughout, requiring no blackouts, these instances seem out of place in the production. This is my only point of critique, and I would consider it more of a humorous detail.
The brilliant staging, committed ensemble performances, and sharp, forward-moving action meant a fantastic experience of the play overall. Putting the story and acting at the forefront, supported by minimal and specific production design, made me feel immersed as an audience member.
An unplanned fire-alarm-induced intermission interrupted Caesar’s funeral during the first performance. This added only a few minutes to the approximately two-hour runtime. Interestingly, at first, it seemed like part of the show. Are the flashing houselights inviting the audience to participate in the outrage onstage? The fire alarm made Caesar’s tragic misinterpretation of signs surprisingly more relatable.
The cast returned inside with the same, if not more, tenacity. Brutus telling the fire alarm to remain silent and a later sound effect reminiscent of the earlier alarm prompted laughter. Laughter was not out of place in this production. Casca and Caesar present notable comedic moments. Importantly, humour in Cast A’s Julius Caesar does not detract from the overall seriousness and commitment to sharing the emotions and stories of the text.
Overall, if this were my introduction to Shakespeare in performance, everything I saw afterward would mostly disappoint. I highly recommend Julius Caesar.