I could feel this production right before I watch it – from the entrance of Fort Canning Green, we were invited to enter the picnic spaces through “The Capitol” stage and have a sense of how it feels to navigate through the multi-dimensional set like the actors would. It was at this moment that I admired how the team’s Production Designer, Richard Kent, managed to utilise the stage not just to add more layers to the storytelling, but to make the play’s audiences feel a tad more special, as if telling us that we are not mere spectators of the show, but a part of the play itself.
Even before the action begins, there were already “cameramen” (Tia Andrea Guttensohn) who were setting up the live cameras to film the audience. It was a pity that the live screens on stage were not that huge to enjoy them with full clarity. We later learnt that the “cameramen” are actors themselves too. When the play started at about 7:30PM, the “host”/Marullus (Shane Mardjuki) informed the crowd not to take photos or videos with our mobile devices and was briefly interrupted by two “commoners”, which indicated the proper commencement of the play. That was definitely a very clever and creative segue.
In Guy Unsworth’s modern take of the classic Shakespearean tragedy, the premise of the show is set in “R.O.M.E” – an intergovernmental alliance between 7 countries. Although the premise does not deviate much from the actual context of the play (Rome, duh), the setup and costumes of the show are extremely contemporary; it makes me feel as if I’m watching a modern play instead, until the actors started conversing in good ole’ Shakespearean language.
There were a few comedic actions; a notable mention was when Soothsayer/News Correspondent (Vanessa Vanderstraaten) took a selfie with Julius Caesar (Jo Kukathas) whilst warning her of the “Ides of March”. Her actions were made to poke fun at the modern people’s readiness to document their lives on social media these days – even when it was a matter of life and death just like this particular scene, which managed to stir some reaction from the otherwise quiet Friday audience. On a side note, it made me wonder if the news correspondent could have been a separate role instead of merging the role of Popilius Lena to that of the news correspondent in the modernised version, as it was quite a strange modification from the original play.
Quite surprisingly, Caesar’s assassination was also a seemingly comedic scene, and was probably intentional to make it less terrifying for the younger teenage audience. The conspirators took turns to stab Caesar, and at one point, they held Caesar and stabbed her all at the same time!
Other scenes were made more solemn, which was most evident in the conversations between Marcus Brutus (Ghafir Akbar) and Caius Cassius (Julie Wee). The powerful duo were convincing in justifying the assassination with their arguments and compelling thoughts of Caesar’s possible tyranny.
Unquestionably, the star of the show goes to the staging. From the very beginning, the audience witnessed what the stage originally was as “The Capitol”, and the scenes fluidly changed into Brutus’ bedroom and to many other scenes. Credit should also be given to that mini waterfall at the middle of the stage, which was the same spot used to hide the fallen Cassius for one scene. The actors’ movements from the main stage to its elevated component – accessible via the staircases at the sides of the stage – also added more dimensions to the overall staging movements from the audience’s perspective.
The acting calibre delivered by the talented cast also accounted for how successfully engaging the production was. Despite her petite frame, Jo Kukathas managed to embody the air of the powerful Roman consul, and every time she spoke, her intonation made for a very strong presence in the titular role. Supporting that brilliance is the friendship between Ghafir’s Brutus and Julie’s Cassius, the latter who had one of the most lines in the play, but delivered them with great panache throughout the play. Although it is to be noted that it seems as though Julie is rushing through some of her lines at times.
Thomas Pang is a gifted actor, and was extremely convincing in playing Mark Antony. He sent shivers down my spine when he launched into the iconic “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” speech. It was during that particular scene when I felt that the audience and myself could not keep our eyes off the stage – testifying that Thomas knows exactly how to work the audience with his words and stage presence.
Special mentions should also go to Tia Andrea Guttensohn who also played Portia, the wife of Brutus, in an extremely dramatic and heart-wrenching scene when she went down on her knees to beg Brutus to reveal his secrets. It was also very interesting to see how the supporting actors such as Tia herself, Salif Hardie (who plays Cinna and Metellus Cimber), Terrance Tan (who also plays Cinna (aide to Cassius) and Lepidus), and Shane Mardjuki (who plays Marullus, Cicero, and Octavius Caesar) could alternate between multiple roles so flawlessly. I wouldn’t have known that those roles were played by the same person, until I referred to the programme booklet. Major props to the costume designer and the actors’ superb skills for tricking us so well!
However, the fight choreography seems a little too watered down for my liking, which I thought was again – deliberate – for the play’s younger audience. I thought the tension could have brought the play to a stronger climax. Some of the audiences who are already familiar with the original play would have already known how the scenes would pan out, and thus despite the modernisation of the play, I thought that there was a great potential for more excitement by injecting more actions into the fight scenes.
For all its deep insights in political power and ambitions, Guy Unsworth’s modern rendition truly lives up to the Shakespeare classic in his direction of an imaginative and modern story that is extremely comprehensible for audiences of all ages. In fact, it was chilling to witness firsthand how a play written during the Elizabethan era could still resonate so well with today’s current affairs. Richard Kent’s grandeur and magnificent staging also showcases the rich potential of the Fort Canning venue, reinstating the importance of Shakespeare in the Park in Singapore’s literary calendar.
There’s a part of me that still felt that there are some aspects of the plot that should be left unmodernised, and perhaps, this is one that would be best for those who have not read the original Shakespeare play.
- Date: 2 – 27 May 2018
- Venue: Fort Canning Park
Tickets start at $45. For more information, visit http://www.srt.com.sg/show/juliuscaesar/
Photos courtesy of Singapore Repertory Theatre.