Thursday Theatre Review: Julius Caesar

Full disclosure: Julius Caesar is my favourite Shakespeare play. I love the writing, I love the story, and I find its subtle political commentary fascinating. This is all rather unlucky for the cast and creative team of Hart House Theatre's production of Shakespeare's classic tragedy. It's only human nature to be protective of the things you love.

Having said that, the Hart House Caesar is not a bad production, nor is it a particularly good one. It is a very angry and very loud production, offering plenty of sturm und drang, but very little nuance or genuine emotion. It is an ambitious effort, but one that ultimately falls far short of the play's rigorous demands.

Julius Caesar recounts the events leading up to, and following, the assasination of the play's titular character. The story is well tread, and I won't dwell on it here. It is a surprisingly relevant fascinating exploration of power and ambition, and in Brutus, Caesar's reluctant murderer, Shakespeare finds one of his most complex tragic heroes. Moreover, the script's themes- the danger of unchecked authority and the tendency of power to corrupt those who wield it- have a certain resonance in our current political reality. It's a shame this production spends so little time exploring these ideas, opting instead for a lot of macho posturing and shouting.

Almost to a person, the cast of Julius Caesar has two settings: grim-faced mumbling and flat-out rage. They are either blasting through their lines at a speed that makes comprehension difficult, or screaming at one another and jumping up and down. The actors are palpably struggling with the text, focussing more on just getting the words out than illuminating any meaning or subtext within. And they are frequently and inexplicably angry. As a result, the whole thing comes off as a bit incoherent and entirely shrill. Jason Fraser turns in the show's best performance as Brutus, managing to find some humanity amidst all the chest pounding and yelling. Scott Moore also has some nice moments as Cassius, as does Matt Selby as Mark Antony. Although there was a brief, frightening moment during Antony's famous "Cry Havoc!" speech where I actually thought Selby was going to burst into song.

Shakespeare is everywhere these days- movies, TV shows, even cartoons. His work is a comfortable part of our cultural background. Even if someone has never seen a Shakespearean play, they can probably still quote a few better-known lines. But it's a mistake to conclude from this familiarity that performing Shakespeare is somehow easy. The language is complex and challenging, the themes are often alien to a modern audience, and the action demands much from the actors, director and production team. The performance problems in Julius Caesar are understandable responses to these challenges by an inexperienced cast- non-stop anger and dead-serious, leaden delivery are typical acting traps in a Shakespearean play. What this cast needed was a director who could help them transcend these difficulties and find the rich depth of the script.

Unfortunately, Julius Caesar suffers from a notable lack of directorial attention. Anthony Furey's sole contribution to this production seems to be its oppressively bleak and aggressive tone. No question, Caesar is a dark and violent play. But Furey frequently allows his actors to play the mood of the overall piece rather than the particular emotional or tonal demands of a particular scene. As a result, the play has one note, and that note gets very boring. And then there's the rage. The play starts angry, and remains angry the whole way through. So when something truly bad or enraging happens, the actors can only get slightly more angry. They simply have nowhere left to go. The aptly named Furey really needed to reign in all the anger and help his actors come across as human characters, as opposed to implacable rage machines.

There's also a distinct lack of subtlety to the technical production, adding to the ham-fistedness of the whole show. The music is particularly oppressive, consisting of about four synth string and choral chords played over and over again at a punishingly loud volume. Used sparingly, the music could have worked quite well. Unfortunately, it crops up every five minutes, and just gets annoying. The lights were also problematic. Some scenes looked great, while others were entirely too dark. It's no fun watching a show you can't see.

The pounding music, vaguely Matrix-espe costumes and wildly angry actors do come together nicely during the final fight scene. Fight Director Jeremy Hutton does a great job of creating a dynamic and entertaining fight sequence, combining swordplay, WWE smackdowns and a Lara Croft lookalike with a whip. Cool. And because the cast has spent the entire play being so angry, the fight scene feels like a kind of homecoming. Battle is a place for anger, and the characters all suddenly make sense when they start cleaving at each other's skulls.

At the heart of this ultimately noisy production there still beats a great script. So even with all the missteps and acting traps, thumping industrial music and missed opportunities, Shakespeare's words and insights have a way of shining through. If you're a Shakespeare buff, have a yen for Roman history, or even dig a good angry swordfight, you should probably check this play out.

Julius Caesar continues at the Hart House Theatre until December 8th. For showtimes and tickets, vist or call 416.978.8849.

Photo: Brutus (Jason Fraser) with his conspirators. By Courtney Gibson.

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