Culture  Et tu, dystopia?

McGill production of Caesar is well-crafted, despite lacklustre performances

In the department of English’s current production of Julius Caesar, Professor Patrick Neilson, the director and set designer, has set Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy in “a dystopic future where radical climate change and desertification [have] brought about social and economic instability,” according to the play’s press release. Uneven performances from the actors mar this visually interesting interpretation of the Bard’s tale of political ambition.

The set, as well as the costumes, designed by Jaelem Sangara, illustrate the director’s post-cataclysm aesthetic through the lens of eighties futurism. Using recycled materials to fashion clothes reminiscent at once of cyberpunk and classical dress, Sangara’s costumes call to mind the ancient and the modern, the play’s roots and the update the director has attempted to give it.

The six vertical blocks around the set reinforce this apocalyptic atmosphere. Like brutalist buildings, these structures abstract traditional forms – in this case, columns – into stark, honest shapes. The colours of the columns, various shades of decayed green, help reinforce the notion that some sort of disaster has occurred. Together, the costume and set design give a desolate image of the future, a world where all buildings are bare and utilitarian, and all clothes scavenged from the rubbish heap.

Using the three small staircases that also adorn the set to delineate space and emphasize certain actions, the director is able to make a small cast seem large (in the battle in Act V, for example), and small actors seem towering (the somehow imposing yet diminutive Cicero of Sean Wood). These stairs also permit Neilson to focus attention on orators or on particular dramas, like Brutus’s suicide.

Dave Howden’s lighting works particularly well. It’s hard to imagine certain scenes having the effect they do without Howden’s skilful arrangements. The red light during Caesar’s assassination and the blue at the close of the play are especially powerful.

The music, however, by sound engineer Chris Barillaro, is distracting and trite. Most noteworthy is the cringe-worthy use of “drama piano” during Antony’s eulogy for Brutus. Rather than heightening the pathos of the scene, the strains of piano make it seem cliché and forced. The music saps all of the emotional force from Antony’s speech.

Without a doubt, the best parts of the play are the crowd scenes. The “mutiny” in Act III deserves special mention. After Antony whips the public into a frenzy, the animalistic plebeians, shrieking, stooping and stomping, run off stage. Darkness, then a spotlight: Cinna the poet (Jordana Weiss) walks alone. The shadows of the rabble rise on the steps in the background; several of them open lighters.

The tension mounts and mounts in a taut exchange – and breaks: the howling masses brutalize the innocent writer. In this one scene, the greatest strengths of the production – its emotional energy, Howden’s lighting, and its use of space – culminate.

This scene also brings out the play’s most troubling aspect: its mistrust, or scorn, of democracy. Shakespeare presents to us a volatile, fickle crowd, swayed by whatever words Antony, Brutus, or Caesar throw their way. As Cassius and Brutus fight to save the Republic, we wonder if this lot really deserves the effort.

As for the acting itself, the performances are uneven. Zak Rose interprets Caesar somewhat shallowly. Nevertheless, the swagger and sway, and the good-humoured arrogance of the dictator gives us a novel insight into his character and make up for the flatness of Rose’s portrayal. His body language is especially well-rendered, for example, when enthroned at the Senate, and effectively conveys a man whose hubris blinds him to the dangers that surround him.

Little saves Murteza Khan’s Brutus, however, whose depthless, monotonous performance is a great disappointment. At turns angry and yelling or bland and uninspired, Khan fails to deliver the multidimensional Brutus that the play calls for. His wavering over the plot to kill Caesar in the first three acts is unconvincing, as is his gushing, emotional reaction to Portia’s self-inflicted wound in Act II. Worst of all is his recourse to yelling, as when he inappropriately shouts himself hoarse during his justification to the people of Rome.

Indeed, hoarseness is a problem for several of the actors, many of whom yelled, rather than emoted. On the subject of voices, the voice of the soothsayer (also Weiss) regrettably echoed Christian Bale’s Batman voice. Her ridiculous, raspy growl makes her predictions of misfortunate impossible to take seriously.

Antony, played by Fraser Dickson, is a breath of fresh air after so many scenes of Brutus monologuing. His transition from grief to wrath following Caesar’s murder is moving and effective; his devious manipulation of the crowd is brilliant and entertaining. Dickson only fails during his eulogy of Brutus; his overwrought delivery exacerbates the melodramatic mood set by the fleeting piano in the background.

Spencer Malthouse’s Cassius stood out from the four other protagonists and stole the show. Gesticulating, twisting his face and bending his voice to convey Cassius’s complexity, Malthouse brings his character’s corrosive jealousy vividly to life in Act I. (His portrayal is especially strong when relating the story of Caesar’s near-drowning.) Malthouse performs Cassius’s hysterical, self-pitying theatrics with subtlety, skill and humour, and more than makes up for the flat Brutus.

Merely on the merits of its staging and lights, this play deserves to be seen. The high points of Neilson’s Julius Caesar – Malthouse, Dickson and the group scenes – make up for the flawed and flat performances of too much of the cast.

The play runs this weekend, April 2-4, at 7:30 p.m. in Moyse Hall Theatre.