[Review] Shakespeare in the Park: Julius Caesar

Bravo! SRT’s Julius Caesar is a tempestuous display of powerful performances all round, set against an impressive stage.

After a year’s absence, SRT’s latest Shakespeare in the Park series is centered on the bard’s political thriller involving one of Rome’s most famous characters: Julius Caesar. First produced in the 17th century, the play of ambition and power is brought to life against a backdrop of modern-day politics and global affairs.

For those who didn’t read Shakespeare’s play, the story follows a group of 6 republican leaders, led by Cassius, who grow fearful of Caesar’s rising political power, and hatch a plan to assassinate their leader. Even those who haven’t read the play would know its most famous quotes: “Et tu, Brute?” and “Beware the Ides of March”.

Image via SRT

While the play is over 400 years old, the political theme is as resonant today. SRT’s version is set against a backdrop of modern-day anarchy, protests, and even global warming using visual cues such as panels of TV news and mobile phones.

To bring the audience closer to reality, even the speeches were recorded live – beamed to the TV above the stage – with video cameras on stage. There was even audience participation at one point.

Visually, the double-storied stage itself is a work of art, hiding within it many interesting contraptions – the hydraulic floor transforms into a working fountain in one scene, to a conference table the next. The rear end of the stage even has a rain function.

What is refreshing about the modern play is the casting choice – both the antagonist and titular role are played by women, throwing a twist to the play’s pronoun game. We were left wondering if the script was intentionally left as original as possible when Brutus refers to Cassius (played by Julie Wee) as ‘brother’ and ‘he’. Meanwhile, the role of Calphurnia – Caesar’s wife in the original play – is relegated to personal assistant.

Both Jo Kukathas (Caesar) and Julie Wee are no strangers to Shakespeare, having appeared in numerous incarnations of the bard’s plays. This clearly resonates in the confident delivery of their lines, and their stage presence. Amid a crowd of stellar actors, one worthy of mention is Tia Andrea Guttensohn, whose (very brief) portrayal of Brutus’ suffering wife, Portia is heart-wrenching.

The well-tailored costumes added to the viewing pleasure – however, many in the audience were secretly wincing at the fact that in the hot, humid conditions of Fort Canning the male actors had to wear their full ‘ceremonial attire’. Ghafir Akbar, who played Brutus, was clearly not the most comfortable in his green garb, further cementing his role as the most tragic hero of the play.

When Caesar is slain in the Senate on the ‘Ides of March’, it’s Mark Antony (Thomas Pang) who manages to stir a brilliantly manipulative funeral oration that inspires the crowd – and the audience – to turn against Caesar’s betrayers.

The play poses a question: should you have loyalty to your leader, or your country? It is clear that Cassius and a reluctant Brutus chose the latter, convinced that Caesar is treated like a god and may aspire to dictatorship over the Roman republic even though she shows no such inclination having declined the crown several times.

Image via SRT

In the end, a civil war led by Mark, Octavius (played by Shane Mardjuki with a man bun), and Casca (played by Daniel Jenkins) overthrows the ruling senate, leading Cassius and Brutus to kill themselves to avoid further dishonour.

From start to finish, the play was entertaining and at no point was there a lull in performance. The setting at Fort Canning was picturesque, with picnickers spread around the stage; this year, there was even a special VIP portion where guests were treated to spacious seating arrangements and fancy picnic baskets.

Julius Caesar will be playing until 27 May, and you can get your tickets here. (If you miss this year’s you’ll have to wait for another 2 years before SRT brings their Shakespeare in the Park programme back to Fort Canning.)