The new Sydney Theatre Company production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a “mad ride”, according to Guardian Australia reviewer Steve Dow – a production fizzing with viral imagery, TikTok rightwing conspiracy theorists, smartphone tech, Instagram wellness gurus and the unpredictable energy of post-Capitol riot politics.
We asked the director, Kip Williams, and his cast to let us in on some of the thinking behind this unique staging and reveal some of the backstage secrets of a show that mixes old-school “theatre magic” with cutting-edge technology.
Three is the magic number
Julius Caesar has around 40 speaking roles though not even Shakespeare himself would have considered a cast anywhere near that size. The Bard was a flinty producer as well as a genius playwright. He made a play that can be realised with a dozen or so actors, doubling roles as required.
But this STC production has a cast of only three – Ewen Leslie, Geraldine Hakewill and Zahra Newman.
So how does that work? And why three?
“My instinct and intuition,” Williams says. “This is a piece that looks at the division between the public and private lives of people with power. It’s a play about masking and unmasking, and with three performers doing the whole thing, you are constantly seeing them mask and unmask themselves.”
The unkindest cuts of all
No matter how versatile the cast, with only three actors to play with, some notable characters had to go. Deciding who got the chop was one of the hardest problems to solve, says Williams. Final cuts weren’t made until the third public preview of the production.
“Cutting Calpurnia and Portia [wives of Caesar and Brutus, respectively] was a big one,” says Williams. “We tried lots of ways of doing those scenes but in the end, we asked ourselves why were we showing women begging on their knees but having no impact on the course of the action? We thought it would be better to have incredible women performing the great speeches of the play as part of our commentary on gender and power.”
The murder of Caesar is usually an all-hands-on-deck affair as the conspirators line up to stab the tyrant. This production uses prerecorded green screen trickery (designed by David Bergman) to get around the problem.
“We recorded the murder in week two of rehearsal with [fight director] Tim Dashwood choreographing the action to a click track,” says Williams. “We started with a hero take with Ewen as Caesar, Geri as Casca and Zahra as Brutus. Most of it was Ewen pretending to be stabbed by 20 or so other conspirators who would be composited on later. It was like learning a dance – very weird but amazing to watch.”
Pretty weird to actually do, says Leslie. “It was click, click, stab, click, stab, click, click, stab … You know how actors say, ‘no one has ever done this before’? Well, I’m pretty sure maybe I’m the only Caesar that has had to do this.”
With three actors playing various senators jabbing and poking away at a bewildered Caesar (some more enthusiastically than others), this intricate assassination dance is both gruesome and funny. It’s meant to be that way, Williams says. “Right from the start, thinking about the work, we wanted to find a tone that oscillated between horrific and absurd.”
Other prerecorded sequences include spectacular rants from modern-day conspiracy theorists. “They are real, taken verbatim from TikTok and from people like [US rightwing commentator] Alex Jones,” Williams says. “All we’ve done is change the names.”
‘Heavy lies the phone’
The actors use smartphones throughout the production, filming themselves in a tight selfie or turning the camera on each other. The images are then transmitted to the show’s most eye-catching design feature, a huge cube of LED screens dominating the stage.
In short, they are shooting a live movie at the same time as acting in it.
The smartphones allow for lightning-fast oscillations between public persona and private thought. “It’s also an amazing confessional space for a soliloquy,” says Williams.
The power of the phone is one of the themes interrogated in the production, he adds. “A lot of what interests me about the state of democracy today is the impact that technology is having on it. The mobile – and by extension, social media – is central to the way we construct and disseminate political rhetoric today.”
Newman confesses to being “the Luddite” of the group. “I don’t love technology and I only ever use a phone to text people,” she says.
“Heavy lies the phone!” chortles Leslie.
“I really struggle with it,” Newman continues. “And I have the worst phone in the show. Everything goes wrong with it. It turns itself off and the pictures are weird. But I can’t ask for another. I’m scared of change. My phone is a Gremlin.”
Julius Caesar is a bloody play and phones are slippery things. Do the actors have nightmares about dropping them?
“I had to tone down the blood bag – much to my dismay – because one time, I nearly flooded the phone with fake blood,” Leslie says.