On July 7, Repercussion Theatre opened Julius Caesar at Mont Royal Cemetery, as part of their annual Shakespeare-in-the-Park tour. The audience sat with their backs against gravestones as murder, ghosts, and glory overtook the stage before them. An original take on a historical classic, Julius Caesar aimed to shock and captivate. The production challenged the norms of Shakespearean theatre, as well as traditional gender roles, with undeniable imagination; while some new approaches worked better than others, the overall impact gave the audience much to discuss.
This year’s production is most famous for its widely advertised all-women cast. Director Amanda Kellock’s take on Julius Caesar prompted a passionate dialogue on women’s empowerment. In the director’s note, Kellock mentions that, “I don’t think we’re changing Shakespeare’s intention [in regards to the message of the play] — simply removing a limitation under which the shows were first produced.”
While the men in Julius Caesar flocked towards a malevolent cause […], the women […] proved to be the wisest, most strong-minded, and independent characters.
Acting, in Shakespeare’s era, was a lowly and base profession, entirely populated by men. The idea of using an all-women cast reinvents the origins of Elizabethan theatre. It shows the versatility and malleability of roles in theatre, and the ways in which women can redefine traditional representations of classic characters throughout history. In many ways, the superior acting skills of the cast preceded the expected difficulty of playing someone of another gender.The all-women cast explored each male character with a new layer of context; each character was vibrant and convincingly sympathetic in an original way.
While the men in Julius Caesar flocked towards a malevolent cause and were swayed with oratory, the women characters, Portia and Calpurnia, proved to be the wisest, most strong-minded, and independent characters. Calpurnia, played by Tamara Brown, was rebuffed for being paranoid when she attempted to warn Caesar of the murderous plot against him. Portia, played by Holly Gauther-Frankel, stood her ground against her husband and demanded his secrets. Portia lamented over the restraints placed on women and her subordinate role, even as a noble wife in Ancient Rome. When her husband, Brutus, played by Deena Aziz, returned to their home, conflicted by the plot to kill Caesar, Portia suspected his dishonesty and demanded the truth, knowing full well that he had been wooed by the other Roman officials. Despite her inability to influence Roman politics, Portia commanded herself with confidence and agency.
[The] deliberate corrosion of Rome dampened the stark and dramatic impact of the play.
Wanting to reflect “Rome’s fallen grandeur,” Marjolaine Provencal, in charge of stage design and Crystal Chettiar, tasked with lighting design, created a unique set for Julius Caesar, decorated by rusting pipework and other industrial motifs. While it effectively foreshadows the play’s ending, the set ultimately took away from the intended irony of Shakespeare’s tragedy. When Caesar falls, he falls in the centre of the classical world and bleeds upon a legacy of triumph. The representation of Rome as sophisticated and opulent serves as a juxtaposition to Caesar’s death. While this does not mean the play requires marble pillars, the deliberate corrosion of Rome dampened the stark and dramatic impact of the play.
Caesar, played by Leni Parker, commanded the stage with a haunting presence, as the character lingered on stage as a ghost throughout the second act. In the closing sequence of Brutus’ suicide, the ghost of Caesar took on the role of the servant holding Brutus’ sword, completing the cycle of tragedy. Though Caesar was portrayed as a great and powerful leader in the first act, in death he became a silent spectator, freed from the desires of life, forgiving as he guided his enemies to the otherworld.
[The] talent of the all-women cast brought the play to new creative heights.
Near the end of the play, Cassius and Brutus wage war against the vengeful Mark Antony, played by Gitanjali Jain, in a climactic final battle to determine the remaining characters’ fates. Repercussion Theatre reimagined this brutal and violent scene as a slow-motion dance, with characters dashing across the stage at various speeds. The percussion in the background built up a steady beat for the action, guiding the character’s movements. While it tried to amplify the drama of death for each specific character, the repetitive dance fell short of actually achieving its goal. The effect elicited little wow-factor from the audience, and turned a passionately active scene into a lull.
Mark Antony, in his eulogy to Caesar, draws attention to the characteristics of “an honourable man”. He questions the validity of honour and the sin of ambition. In many ways a reflection of itself, Julius Caesar was innovative and ambitious. Yet, there were times when it too buckled under the pressures of tradition. However, the talent of the all-women cast brought the play to new creative heights. The evening ended with the opening song, giving the performance a sense of finality. As the play closed and the audience dispersed, one could certainly feel the ghosts of Julius Caesar long after the last shuttle left the graveyard.