Sydney's consummate Shakespeareans kick goals with their gender-swapping outdoors production
Great Caesar, a woman? Yes, in Sport For Jove’s surprisingly successful experiment, not only is the assassinated Roman Emperor female, so are the key conspirators Cassius and Casca, her successor Augustus, and various others. But the most important character in the historical tragedy (which Shakespeare might better have named Marcus Brutus) remains male, played by co-director Damien Ryan, who does the thoughtful murderer-friend rather well.
Our attention is inevitably drawn towards sexual politics by the dozens of familiar lines where “she” is substituted for “he", and a few the other way. Less comfortable is changing “man" when Mark Antony addresses Caesar’s bleeding corpse with: "Thou art the ruins of the noblest man / that ever livèd in the tide of times.” Oddest-sounding is Caesar’s fear of Cassius, originally “Let me have men about me that are fat.”
But often the pronoun toggling actually ends up illuminating humanity rather than gender differences: the grievances yelled on the battlefield between Brutus and Cassius might immediately sound like a lover’s tiff, but to anyone who can hear beneath the sword-rattling, it always was. A similar result flows from the superb interleaving of two separate but analogous scenes: Caesar’s husband’s attempts to persuade her to chuck a sickie on the Ides of March holiday, and Brutus’s wife’s attempts to persuade him to tell her what he’s really planning to do in the morning. We see clearly that their behaviours follow from the spousal and power relationships rather than from biology.
Ryan and co-director Michael Pigott keep the drama tightly focused on its own psychological world, never inviting the usual wandering into comparisons with contemporary politics. Brutus’s servant Lucius is renamed Lucia, but to retitle the work Julia Caesar would have us wondering – spuriously – if Kevin Rudd shares many of the admirable qualities of Marcus Brutus. Even with the U.S. Electoral College deliberating the suitability and risks of Donald Trump, he comes to mind only when Shakespeare indulges in his most abstract generalisations: "The abuse of greatness, is, when it disjoins / Remorse from power."
Sport For Jove have proven many times that outdoor picnic theatre doesn’t have to be frivolous or shoddy. Here they demonstrate that tinkering with the genders in Shakespeare needn’t distract from the drama’s psychological intensity; it can clarify and refresh it.