Scott Sneddon is Senior Editor on SesayArts Magazine where he is also a critic and contributor.
Kaitlyn Riordan’s Portia’s Julius Caesar, now onstage at Hart House Theatre, provides a feminist counterweight to one of Shakespeare’s most masculine plays. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, hubristic Roman noblemen tie themselves in verbal knots to justify actions that manipulate the people and shake the body politic. The title character Caesar is murdered in Act III scene one by variously motivated Roman nobles – barely past the play’s halfway point. So Shakespeare’s play becomes more a battle over the idea of Caesar than the tale of the actual man and his tragic flaw(s).
Given our current high-decibel and (often) low-substance political environment, the play continues to resonate in 2019. Another source of continued relevance? The only two women in Shakespeare’s play – Portia, wife of Brutus, and Calpurnia, wife of Caesar – speak passionately and reasonably, yet are pretty much ignored by all the men around them. In her feminist re-working, Riordan doubles down on this dynamic. The Soothsayer, whose repeated admonitions to “Beware the Ides of March” are brushed aside, is now a woman (JD Leslie). Servilia (Alexandra Milne) – who is the mother of Brutus and was historically reputed to have been a lover of Caesar – has found cunning, indirect ways to be heard, including a hidden role in the plot against Caesar. And in a surprise appearance, a recognizable female “Foreign leader” speaks of the choices she makes to take and hold power in a world where men don’t listen.
When the men appear on stage – starting right when Yusuf Zine’s Caesar delivers the bombastic, ironic land acknowledgement before the play begins – their focus is almost never the person they are speaking with. They are plotting and abstracted, focused on off-stage events and the opaque motivations driving them. By contrast, whether they are servant or noble and whatever their diverse motivations, the female characters seem urgent, direct and present in their focus. athena kaitlin trinh’s Portia is the resilient wife of Felix Beauchamp’s conflicted Brutus. She argues powerfully to be a true partner to her husband, who is tormented by the fact that his devotion to the Roman republic seems at odds with the continued life of its leader Julius Caesar. She carries a baby glued to her chest as emblem of her personal sacrifice and the generational stakes, which drive her beyond the confines of her narrow role in Shakespeare’s original. Caesar’s wife Calpurnia, unable to bear the Roman leader an heir, unburdens herself in torrents that are first fearful, then mournful. Her line “We are Cassandras all” rings painfully true. These women see clearly what is and what should – or might – be. They often take steps to enact it, but seem doomed to be heard but not heeded.
But unlike Shakespeare’s original, this play does not organize itself around the tragedy’s need to settle the kingdom’s leadership and pile the stage with bodies as a counterbalance to male tragic flaws. This is not a simple trip through the looking glass to travel the same distance in a parallel universe. Portia’s Julius Caesar is its own tale. It intersects Shakespeare’s, but charts its own narrative arc through the interactions and insights of these women – and finds its own logical and different moment of conclusion.
The play is a seamless blend of text from Shakespeare’s original play, passages drawn from some twenty other Shakespeare works, and Riordan’s own additions. Initially a slow burn, its strength is not just its remarkably unified voice, but Eva Barrie’s direction, which grabs the audience bodily and refuses to let us off the hook. More than passive witnesses, we are participants in this production. We are part of this Rome, implicated in the action and – perhaps – in the imagined alternatives to that action. The Soothsayer prowls the audience, sits for moments in the aisles making observations, calling out pronouncements and sounding her horn. Loud parades and agitated crowds enfold and run through the audience. In the wake of Caesar’s murder, crowd members appeal directly to the audience for confirmation of their views. As he delivers Antony’s famous speech, Hardi Zala walks the aisles and works the room. He makes confident eye contact with individual audience members as he inexorably turns the crowd against Brutus.
The theatre comes to life in these chaotic moments of male misdirection, which confuse, confound and subvert the will of the people. But this drama rings hollow next to the dynamism and connectedness of the female protagonists striving for agency within their more intimate scenes. Portia’s nuanced exchanges with Milne’s political animal Servilia and Ampadu’s Calpurnia ring urgently true, as does a dramatic exchange late in the play between Calpurnia and Melanie Leon’s Foreign Leader. It is abundantly clear that there are more things here than are dreamt of in the philosophy of Caesar, Brutus and Antony – or that of countless contemporary leaders.
Hart House Theatre’s production of Portia’s Julius Caesar is a strong but challenging addition to the current season. Its political narrative makes it relevant and relatable, though the built-in audience seems a bit narrow: grade 11 students studying the play (of whom there were some in the audience), university English students and Shakespeare fans willing to embrace a reinterpretation of the Bard. Brilliant staging, strong performances and a surprisingly seamless script amply reward the patient viewer’s trip to the theatre. There’s lots to chew on here: just be prepared for complex, not processed, flavours and textures.
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What: Portia’s Julius Caesar by Kaitlyn Riordan │Set Design by Rachel Forbes│Costume Design by Julia Kim │Lighting Design by Chris Malkowski │Sound Design by Andy Trithardt │Dramaturgy by Andrew Joseph Richardson │Directed by Eva Barrie
Performed by JD Leslie (Soothsayer), Margaret Hild (Esther / Metellus Cimber), Ophilia Davis (Vera / Trebonius), Nelvin Law (Cecilia / Cinna), Patrick Fowler (Jurtha), Alexandra Milne (Servilia), Whitney K. Ampadu (Calpurnia), athena kaitlin trinh (Portia), Felix Beauchamp (Marcus Brutus), John Echano (Caius Cassius), Yusuf Zine (Julius Caesar), Hardi Zala (Mark Antony), Melanie Leon (Casca / Foreign Leader), Marley Kajan (Chorus), Rahul Mishra (Chorus), Jennifer Séguin (Chorus), Samantha Vu (Chorus), Dixon John (Citizen)
When: On stage until Nov. 30, 2019; Running Time: 115 minutes (no intermission)
Where: Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: harthouse.ca
© Scott Sneddon, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019