Julius Caesar conjures up for most of us a lot of noble Romans in togas and breastplates, a loud political play of bloody honour and civic debate.
Spiky young director Benedict Andrews, however, makes Shakespeare’s play a whispering nightmare, a slow psychological journey which borders on performance art. It’s a long night.
When the old tyrant is stabbed in the senate, the conspirators usually pick up their togas and run shouting out to the mob to justify themselves as protecting the republic of Rome.
This STC production has them instead slumped into inertia as they watch the murdered Caesar by the light of a naked globe and an inexplicable little girl slowly brings on a tub of blood.
No wonder the assassins lose the battle of words. Caesar’s friend Mark Antony turns the mob against them and it all ends badly with yet more stabbings.
Not that these assassins could raise much of a fight. Andrews dresses them in bad suits and pullovers and chooses mostly older non-physical actors more equipped for mind games than hearty Roman sword play.
Caesar himself is played by the veteran Arthur Dignam as an already skeletal ghost of himself, deliberately acting at Caesar’s pomposity rather than being it.
At the centre of this sleepless nightmare is Robert Menzies, who is convincingly depressive as the lead conspirator, Brutus. It’s no surprise his wife mutilates her genitals and swallows fire.
All this is performed in a concrete amphitheatre surrounded by high grey walls, suggesting an old stadium stained with past political tyrannies and torture.
Ghostly figures watch the action from the bleachers, the volcanic soundscape rumbles on and suggestions of Iraq hover throughout.
The objections are easy. Shakespeare’s play of urgent and competing political rhetoric is ill-served by whispering actors sloppy with the language.
Andrews’s fascination with introspection and the decrepit also seems inappropriate for a play about action and public statement.
Film actor Ben Mendelsohn as Mark Antony, for example, shuffles on stage as an Aussie bloke in footy shorts and delivers his speech to the mob with the same understatement. But in this mad dream his performance is true and excellent.
Purists and even Shakespeare himself might think this production is an odd fit for his play, but throughout I was curious, awed, moved or puzzled. Never bored. Julius Caesar offers a lot to experience in three and half hours.
Julius Caesar is at the STC’s Wharf Theatre until 13 August.