Review: Julius Caesar at the Winter Shakespeare Festival

The inaugural Winter Shakespeare Festival is running two shows throughout the month of January:  Julius Caesar fills the festival’s tragedy slot, while A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the comedy. Both plays are staged at the Holy Trinity Anglican Church.

Caesar isn’t one of the more commonly performed Shakespeare plays, at least not in recent times in Edmonton; this was actually my first time seeing it staged. This production is quite minimalist, largely because of Holy Trinity’s fairly small stage and simple technology. The production employs a modest lighting and sound design; a fog machine does some heavy lifting to create mood and assist scene changes.

The production uses this slightly awkward space well, with secondary characters regularly departing and arriving via the aisles between pews. I especially enjoyed the scenes where the assembled citizens are scattered throughout the audience, responding to the characters on stage: audience members get to hear various grumblings and outbursts from assorted cast members, which gave a nice touch of authenticity.

For the most part, the performers remembered to generally face forward and project well when delivering their lines. It’s easy for sound to get lost to the cavernous vaulted church ceiling; I did miss a few lines that seemed to evaporate into thin air.

The Winter Shakespeare Festival is the brainchild of Malachite Theatre’s artistic director Ben Blyth. As he has done in past shows with Malachite, Blyth mixed up the casting and assigned both men and women to opposite roles. (Shakespeare would approve.) Miranda Allen played Brutus with calm capability while Nikki Hulowski played hard-drinking Caesar devotee Mark Antony with flair. Hulowski had similar energy in this production as she did when she played Margaret in Studio Theatre’s production of Richard III back in October – I really enjoyed her performance in both.

As Caesar, Tom Bradshaw was a commanding figure, though I didn’t feel like we saw much of the charisma and intimidation that inspired such loyal devotion – and then swift betrayal – amongst his followers. The scene that best conveyed Caesar’s emotional depth was when his wife (Jaimi Reese), having had a premonition of her husband’s imminent murder, begs him not to go to the Senate that day. Caesar’s populist appeal comes through strongly in a scene after his death, when Antony is reading Caesar’s will and reveals to the assembled rabble that Caesar left them each a small sum of money. It reminded me of Ralph Bucks.

The cast of Julius Caesar. Photo supplied.

The costumes, by Beyata Hackborn, fit nicely with this show’s minimalist charm. Rather than have everyone in full period garb, the costuming made use of strategically placed fabrics, gold clips, chains and other accessories to suggest more ornate clothing. They did have a few pieces of chain mail and plate amour, including a couple classic Roman helmets, as well as large Roman-style shields and short swords. These really came into play in the second act when everyone was fighting and running and impaling themselves or others.

Despite the energetic battle scenes in the second act, the intensity flagged a bit due to the space: all the extra bodies and props made the stage feel a bit cramped. For safety’s sake, the choreography had to be very slow and exaggerated versus swift and fluid, which ultimately made the various characters’ demises seem a little anti-climactic.

Still, this version of Shakespeare provides a nice counterpoint to the technology-heavy production of Richard III that Edmonton audiences saw in the fall. There are so many ways to do Shakespeare, and every play has been done a million different ways, that I appreciated seeing a more pared-back version of the play, with emphasis on the text itself.

And this particular text was well-chosen and perennially relevant, particularly given the outburst of renewed global military conflict only days before opening night. Such is the beauty – and tragedy – of Shakespeare’s dramas: they remain relevant centuries after they were written, and literally a millennium after their subject matter lived. Perhaps if we spent more time watching Shakespeare, we’d actually learn from our past mistakes and repeat them on stage only.

For more info on this new theatre festival, check out last week’s podcast with Winter Shakespeare Festival’s artistic director, Ben Blyth.

 

Julius Caesar
By William Shakespeare
Winter Shakespeare Festival
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, until Sunday, February 2


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