Australian main stages are finally catching up with multiracial casting. It’s about time. Alison Croggon on An Ideal Husband and Julius Caesar
Last week saw the opening of two classic plays – Melbourne Theatre Company’s An Ideal Husband and Bell Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar – which featured not one, not two, but several people of colour in each cast, some playing leading roles. Maybe Australian main stages are finally catching up with the concept of multiracial casting.
It’s well past time: Australia has long lagged behind the US and the UK on this practice. And classic plays are a bastion worth attacking: aside from the question of their cultural prestige, whenever they are restaged they become, even in the most conservative productions, reflections of our own time. I guess there will always be people who claim that pre-20th century European worlds were entirely white (not true, as it happens, even in high society England). But it’s an odd relief watching a multiracial cast in which the people on stage look something like the people walking down the streets outside, a sense that the world on the stage isn’t entirely divorced from the world beyond it.
The Melbourne Theatre Company’s An Ideal Husband is a reminder that there’s a lot to be said for an excellent straight production of a classic play. With his designer Dale Ferguson, director Dean Bryant has concentrated on realising Wilde’s fantasy world of glamorous houses and impossibly articulate characters. Wilde’s plays are frivolous diversions, in the best sense. He created chandeliers of language, all sparkle and cutting edges: their primary purpose is delight. And I found this production delightful.
Unlike The Importance of Being Earnest, An Ideal Husband isn’t all glittering surfaces. Beneath the farce and the Wildean quips is a question about whether it’s possible to maintain integrity in a society that is irredeemably corrupt. Sir Robert Chiltern (Simon Gleeson) is an ambitious politician on the verge of being appointed to the Cabinet, who has for years maintained a reputation for incorruptibility. He is married to social activist Lady Chiltern (Zindzi Okenyo), who idealises him as the perfect man, pure in all his conduct.
The arrival of the beautiful but unscrupulous Mrs Cheveley (Christie Whelan Browne) threatens to bring the whole edifice tumbling down, as she possesses a damning letter that reveals his career and wealth stem from a corrupt act in his youth when he sold Cabinet secrets to an investor. She plans to blackmail him, threatening not only his career but his marriage. Sir Robert’s self-interested defence is that of all politicians who compromises themselves: “Every man of ambition has to fight his century with its own weapons”. Without wealth, he claims, he is powerless, and can effect no change at all.
Beneath that is a slightly different argument that no one is perfect, except possibly Lady Chiltern, and can’t be held to such inhuman standards. It’s impossible not to link this plea with Wilde’s own public humiliation: the infamous trial which saw him imprisoned for sodomy was the same year as the first performance of An Ideal Husband. In the play, as it is a comedy, the action plays out to happy coupledness, with the deeper questions left in suspension. We all know what happened to Wilde in real life.
Bryant’s production achieves the tricky balance between melodrama and farce with a nice precision, so that the more serious questions resonate as bass notes in the frivolity. Ferguson’s ingenious design features full-length drop curtains, sunflower yellow and deep burgundy, that stretch diagonally across the stage, leaving all the detailing to the sumptuous costumes and furniture. Matthew Frank’s sound and Matt Scott’s lighting design are equally light in their touch. The whole creates the impression of sparkle and luxury without fuss or overdressing.
I felt much the same about the performances, which after a bit of initial stickiness on opening night warmed into being stylised without archness. There are strong performances from all the cast, down to Josh Price’s lugubrious butler, and several standouts. Zindzi Okenyo as the earnest Lady Chiltern might have the most difficult role, since she is the straight man to the comedy, but she plays her character’s sincerity with an underlying passion that invests her with depth.
As the irredeemable Mrs Cheveley, Christie Whelan Browne is both charming and darkly cynical, but somehow suggests a hint of vulnerability. Brent Hill’s Lord Goring, a dandy and wit who proves to be the most moral character of all, is played with impeccable timing and handles the Beardsley-style poses with comic flair. He pairs very nicely with the ingenuously frivolous Miss Mabel Chiltern (Michelle Lim Davidson). And there is of course a star turn by Gina Riley as the high society gossip Lady Markham.
In short, this production is an excellent antidote to the bleakness of midwinter Melbourne. Bell’s Julius Caesar is sadly not so successful. Directed by James Evans, his first main stage production after an apprenticeship in Bell’s education program, it’s marred by a directorial sluggishness that lets down the cast. It’s a pity, because there’s promise in Evans’ dystopian vision of Rome, but without a steely scaffolding of thought it just collapses into mush.
Shakespeare’s Roman plays, Coriolanus and Julius Caesar, are fascinating speculations about the machinations of power between the rulers and the ruled. I don’t know if he read Machiavelli, but Shakespeare certainly understood that the Prince must win the loyalty of his people if he is to remain in power, and that winning that loyalty isn’t necessarily about being honest or just. Of course they have contemporary application in a public world constituted almost entirely of spin, but the purchase in this production is wobbly at best.
I thought the ensemble cast floundered in this production, although there were good individual performances. Ivan Donato as Brutus is strong in the central role, portraying the soldierly stoicism of the servant of the Republic, who is prepared to murder his friend for the sake of the common good, but fatally doesn’t fully understand the political consequences. Kenneth Ransom looks the part of Caesar, but appeared to have a cold: I don’t remember his voice being so dodgy in La Boite’s Prize Fighter and unfortunately in Shakespeare, this really tells.
There are some puzzling dramaturgical decisions. Most tellingly, the two famous speeches on which the drama turns – Brutus’ and Mark Antony’s (Sara Zwangobani) orations at Caesar’s funeral – are neatly bisected by an interval. The point and power of these two speeches is how Mark Antony icily inverts Brutus’s plea for justice, getting the mob howling for Brutus’ blood. Separating the two means that this electrifying contrast is completely lost. Worse, it means that the energy that is finally beginning to percolate into the production is completely dissipated, leaving the cast to begin all over again.
Anna Tregloan’s set is a billboard on wheels that can be turned around to become a stage or to suggest interiors. It’s a clever idea which ought to have permitted quick and fluid transitions, but somehow didn’t. But mostly the problems are in the detail: the pacing is off, for instance, with a lot of time wasted getting people on and off stage. A lot of the gestural decisions end up being confusing (when Portia stabs her thigh to demonstrate her stoic loyalty to her husband Brutus, it’s anybody’s guess what she’s actually done, and the stylised murder of Caesar fails to be dramatic or tense or really anything at all). You can see the intentions around the production, but they remain merely intentions. And we all know good intentions are not enough.
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, directed by Dean Bryant. Design by Dale Ferguson, lighting by Matt Scott, composition and sound design by Matthew Frank. With Simon Gleeson, Brent Hill, Joseph Lai, Jem Lai, Michelle Lim Davidson, William McInnes, Zindzi Okenyo, Josh Price, Gina Riley, Greta Sherriff and Christie Whelan Browne. Melbourne Theatre Company at the Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, until August 18. Bookings
Julius Caesar by Williams Shakespeare, directed by James Evans. Designed by Anna Tregloan, lighting by Verity Hampson, composition and sound design by Nate Edmondson. Performed by Kenneth Ransom, Jemwel Danao, Ivan Donato, Maryanne Fonceca, Ghenoa Gela, Neveen Hanna, Emily Havea, Nick, Simpson-Deeks, Russell Smith and Sara Zwangobani. Bell Shakespeare at Arts Centre Melbourne until July 28. Touring dates and bookings
Arts Centre Melbourne is wheelchair accessible and accepts Companion Cards
An Ideal Husband access performances:
Audio described and tactic tours: Tuesday 31 July, 6.30pm and Saturday 4 August, 2pm.
Auslan interpreted performance: Saturday 11 August, 2pm
Captioned performance: Thursday 2 August 8pm
For more information, contact the MTC via firstname.lastname@example.org or 03 8688 0800, or Arts Centre Melbourne on 03 9281 8000 (TTY 03 9281 8441).
Julius Caesar access performance:
Captioned and Auslan interpreted performance on Saturday 21 July at 2pm.