Review: Julius Caesar (Pop-Up Globe)
Updated: Jun 2
Auckland's Pop-Up Globe is a sight to behold. A scale replica of the London original, the detail that has gone into recreating the environment of Shakespeare's Globe is quite remarkable. While Globe productions are not inherently perfect (in recent years they have proved particularly divisive), one cannot deny that seeing a performance in the Globe is quite different to seeing it anywhere else - due to being exposed to the elements, having little ability to adapt the space technically, and the fact that a good portion of the audience are standing where stalls would ordinarily be. But if transferred overseas (as far overseas as physically possible), is that atmosphere still retained, or do productions being put on there risk becoming a cheap novelty?
Director Rita Stone's concept for "Julius Caesar", by the Pop-up Globe's Pembroke’s Company, almost immediately puts those concerns to bed. In a play with very few female characters, this gender-swapped production sees a female-only government brought in by Caesar (Donogh Rees), before being toppled from power for war to wage in her wake. This change in gender roles is played up in the production, with men being publicly subdued and humiliated under the new power, asking questions about what would happen if the tables were so dramatically turned on the patriarchy.
This take on the classic play allows for some brilliant commentary without losing sight of the main plot which is entertaining in itself. It is directorial touches such as when Caesar's husband Calpurnia (Andrew Laing) is on his knees begging for her not to attend the senate, and Caesar tilts his head up, showing dominance, that highlights the power dynamics of this version of Rome, though never endorsing it. Gestures as simple as that also make commentary on the representation of women in media. Some design aspects I felt stretched this a little far, such as the "Property of Caesar" sign Calpurnia wore, but these were minimal.
Even with the concept aside the design was really strong. With so many characters with so many similar roles, it can be difficult to keep track depending on the costume design, performance and direction. Here they were all very distinct, mixing modern attire and traditional colour combinations indicative of hierarchy and power, such as high-vis jackets and dull clothes on the commoners, and pencil skirts and royal blue sashes on the dignitaries. There are clear aspects inspired by the 2016 US Election, though the topic of conversation is less about Trump and more about the result of a woman being in power.
The direction too creates an entertaining and suitably shocking production without being solely dependant on the gender-swap. Stone takes full advantage of the Globe as a unique space, filling the stage, incorporating the groundlings area, and climbing up the scaffolding, especially when the action was unfolding between between Brutus, Mark Anthony and all their followers. The tone is not necessarily light but does not take itself too seriously. There are some great moments where tension turns into comedy and back again, such as following the dramatic assassination of Caesar, when Brutus (Sheena Irving) nervously addresses the audience, raising her bloody hands and saying "be not affrighted".
Irving's performance comes off as a woman torn between loyalty, comradeship and doing what is right for her country. She is conflicted yet strong, contrasting with Jessie Lawrence (Venus in Fur) as Mark Antony, who is filled with conviction and persuasive in putting across that conviction, her comedic timing in her speech to the people when saying "and she is an honourable woman" being one of the funniest moments of the show. I was also delighted to see Bronwyn Ensor (One Perfect Moment) performing as Casca. Her wonderfully expressive face and abundance of sassy energy made her difficult to look away from.
Though there are precious few performances of "Julius Caesar" at the Pop-Up Globe, giving way to the usually more profitable "A Midsummer Night's Dream", a plethora of strong performances aided by Stone's direction and a fresh take on the classic play mean it's not one to miss. Four stars.