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The Taste of Death

  • December 7, 2005

By Christina Orow

We’ve all heard about the unusual delicacy that is the Shakespeare speech. Breaking through the initial layer of incomprehension is like getting over the initial revulsion to the smell of durian, until we take that first bite that sends us over to the other side. In a moment, all resistance to the smell is gone. It is now perfume, foreplay – and the final devouring is heady satisfaction. The turn of the plot, the complexity of relationship, the pathos of betrayal, unrequited love and murder avenged bring to life emotions and ideas which we would not otherwise indulge. For Willy Virgins out there wondering what all the fuss is about, perhaps this offering of Julius Caesar (Fri 2 Dec – Sun 11 Dec 2005), presented by KLPac and directed by Joe Hasham, is the ticket to revelation.

Now, I’ve been exposed to much Shakespeare, but not at all to Julius Caesar, which seems to have the worldwide reputation of putting new Shakespeare students off him, by virtue of having a guaranteed and immovable place on school syllabi, and (so I read) of being devoid of much action, love, sex, and humour. So this historical play, which tells of the murder of the Roman dictator who lived from 100 BC to 44 BC, is a meal I have never had, and from what I have heard and read, seems to be more like a lean rack of meat than the succulent fat of roasted, basted Shakespeare servings I am used to.

Nevertheless, from the moment we enter into the cavernous Pentas Satu, our senses are given a taste of what appears to be a sumptuous evening of Shakespearean dining. As we ready ourselves for the beginning of the play, a soundscape of whispers, voices, chants can be heard – it is a music of sorts which reverberates in the blood. The aural landscape (by Two AM Studio: Anton, Yuri, and Kit) is moody, ethereal and visceral, rising up like a storm and dwindling down to a rustle. It is like a ghost is flying through the cave in which we are sitting. I am fascinated – not only by the very tangible emotional effect it has on me but also with the idea that invisible voices are given force and presence, for the sounds also take on character, replacing the Soothsayer and the Crowd.

The appetiser is given form in the set (designed by Loo Jia Wei, built by Paul Hasham): a canvas of white levels and white screens, which, as we are soon to see, play the role of the spotless background, both creatively and technically, to the text (adapted by Joe, dramaturgy by Amsalan Doraisingam), and to the atmospheric lighting design (by Loke Soh Kim). Light and shadow will later play across the blank set and create demarcations on the ground; the blood seeping from Caesar’s body down the steps, men in half-shadows as plots are hatched. Needless to say, the presentation and atmosphere of this dish was a heady and evocative taster.

The tidy costumes (by Jia Wei and Amsalan) are sort of sci-ti minimalist with the odd assent to Roman fashion. The idea it seems, is to keep it non-specific, not to “place” it as particularly Roman. Although beautiful, I can’t help but agree with my partner’s assertion that togas would have enriched the dry physical landscape onstage, without detracting from the universality of the themes.

And what of the performance? Patrick Teoh, Ari Ratos and Gavin Yap immediately stand out for various reasons. Patrick for how his impeccable command of language and character delivery bring forth a Cassius who is diminutive in form but larger than life. Patrick speaking Shakespeare, even when persuading Brutus to the dark side, is like molten chocolate over ice cream – the crisp iciness in inflection and voice melting here and there under the baritone richness. Ari is a Brutus whose violence towards his leader is borne out of a nobler love for the state, a conflicted but measured Brutus stewing in his own juices. Gavin Yap as Mark Anthony is little seen (I don’t mean to pun) but the famed “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears” speech (oh, so he says it – I always thought it was someone else, like Caesar!) is like wine pouring into a large glass, at first splashing, echoing, then finding its fuller pitch as it reaches the top. Here, the sound design creates a crowd with which Anthony spars, a lone voice in a swirl of nothing, battling to be heard.

Kennie Dowle as Caesar is a pleasure to watch, but of course, this is not really about Caesar at all. For the little time that he figures in the plot, Kennie gives us a Caesar crisp and bathed with the sauce of arrogance. His murder scene is an epileptic stroke-inducing attack on the senses, and it is here I have one regret – that I can’t really see the shock of betrayal in Caesar’s eyes when Brutus comes forth as his ultimate killer. Alas, though the scene is electrifying and spectacular in all the physical, sense, the fact that the soundscape voices Caesar’s line “Et tu, Brute!” instead of the actor himself makes it oddly unsatisfying. I would have preferred for that moment to be a little bit more human and intimate to underscore this betrayal by a friend. But Caesar is soon gone and that is that.

Other worthy mentions are Sam Schubert as Portia, the solid, loyal but eventually distracted wife of Brutus, and Kurt Crocker as the off-tempered Gasca.

Julius Caesar is basically about a bunch of men who convince each other to commit murder, and after that, talk about what they did. This can very well describe the complete plot. In this staging, the text has been further pared down – to almost half its original length – which boiled the play down to its bare bones of plot and action. This action-driven adaptation is well-conceived and well-presented.

But the pacing has its drawbacks. During the show, we may get an immediate sense of the characters’ present emotions, but for some of them, we don’t get a sense of their journeys, especially of Mark Anthony, Portia and even Caesar himself. In fact, I would have liked an exploration into the relationship between Caesar and Mark Anthony. Although it doesn’t affect my appreciation of the play at the time of watching, post-show reflection later brings up the desire to know more about the Mark Anthony who loves his Caesar so much. These may already be inherent in the original text, I do not know. Brutus and Cassius, however, have discernible character arcs, and with the actors’ excellent portrayals, we are able to get to the marrow of their motivations, which seem to be the heart of the play.

Brutus’ explanation to the Crowd that he killed his beloved Caesar because he valued the state above the ambitions of a single man seems like a nonsensical honour in this day of meaningless words and even more meaningless promises. This blind faith to ideals and murder committed in the name of a belief certainly make this play resonate with our times.

Feeling the impact of the dominant themes after the play and finding them meaningful, I do think this adaptation of Julius Caesar is effective. Short enough to be palatable but rich enough to fill you up. Though distilled to the essence of action, there is still meat enough in the language and performance to warrant another tasting.

Julius Caesar is staged at KLPac – Pentas 1 from Fri 2 Dec – Sun 11 Dec 2005. For tickets, call 03 4047 9000, or 03 2094 9400.


Christina Orow is a theatre actor, a writer for television and film and a producer for the upcoming Actorlympics.

First Published: 07.12.2005 on Kakiseni