The irrepressible Roz Riley, who in so many ways is Factory Space Theatre Company, has loosened the directorial reins a little, inviting Deb Mulhall to direct the company’s latest production, Bill Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Mulhall has had the audacity to challenge the adage, ‘when in Rome’, taking the play off the streets of the Italian capital and centre of that ancient empire and onto streets a little more akin to our own. It’s Mad Max meets the empire, with desperate, rival bikie gangs roaming the ‘burbs.

And it almost works. Mulhall has had the good judgment to adapt Shakespearean lingo to a more contemporary cadence, with attendant gestures and mannerisms. The only problem is the decision has been applied all too selectively, making for a confusion of styles. The rest of the speech falls all too easily into an exaggerated declamatory style that’s almost laughable. Nonetheless, it probably doesn’t look any quainter than anything Larry did way back when.

It’s as much Rooty Hill as Rome, but the Romans, the gang ramping up local terror, are thinking man’s bikies, with their hearts in the right place (much like the Hell’s Angels annual Christmas toy run, but with more at stake). Olivia Gailiunas graffiti art has much to contribute and it’s a pity it hasn’t been deployed much more extensively, rather than rely on a couple of curtains and some reasonably deft lighting design, by Taylor Allen, which must serve to define ghostly presences. If you have an idea, it’s a better one if you carry it through.

Alison Albany’s Metalla has greatly impressive vocal clarity, even if her looks and postures are sometimes a little overdone. Given her Hellfire Retreat getup, perhaps she could be called Metallica. Fred Hama has a magnificently resonant vocal instrument, but its potential is compromised by one of the ‘thckst’ Kiwi ‘excents’ I’ve ever heard, even in the deep south of that small nation. Physically, he doesn’t seem to know what to do and shuffles from foot to foot distractingly.

Dave Kirkham is a miscast Caesar. For a start, I’ve always imagined someone much smaller, with a bigger ego. His carriage tends to be the same from role to role and isn’t that of a world leader or all-conquering, feared hero. In fact, in his daggy daks, he looks more like a burnt-out hippy. Amelia Tranter, as Casca, slips into a contemporary vernacular which works a treat, although she, too, succumbs to some parodical histrionics later on.

Sontaan Hopson gives a chilled Lucia, also very much in a here-and-how style which creates far more interest than allowing sundry actors to indulge long-held fantasies of Burtonesque dramatic bravado. Moreover, she shows versatility as, donning a blond wig, she doubles as the more deferential, devoted Calpurnia, Caesar’s main squeeze.

Tim Weston makes for an emaciated Mark Antony and the skinniest bikie known to man, but there’s nothing emaciated about his performance, which is robust, at least within the confines of the aforementioned caveats re declamation. His physique, though, makes for a dubious choice for the role, even if designed to confront stereotypes. Perhaps some stereotypes should be left well enough alone.

Matt Jones’ Brutus is played with all the unremittingly principled, upright character that’s written into the role, but I would’ve liked to have seen a little more irony, such that we question, all the more, his motives and whether or not they’re driven by the same or similar egocentricity as Caesar’s. But Jones’ diction and attractive timbre can hardly be faulted.

Cassius is played very well indeed, by Vincent Andriano. He completely captures Cassius’ ‘end justified the means’ outlook and is easily the most successful on stage insofar as portraying complexity and multidimensionality.

Daniel Csutkai is Cicero (and Octavius, in which role he seems, perhaps, more comfortable), and fulfils the part of the orator. Directorially, though, an opportunity was sorely missed: why not have the speeches accompanied by flashes and SLR-drives, to bring the action into the present?

Ami-Starr Goldberg’s Portia couldn’t be more tragically deported. It’s quite fine insofar as it goes but, as with Brutus’, the character isn’t really believable thanks to the narrowness of interpretation. (Back to you, Deb.) Finally, Holly Butler’s Messala passes muster, while, like numerous of her colleagues, doesn’t necessarily leave much of an impression that’s in any way memorable.

At the end of the day, this is a competent and interesting production, which might be also-ran if not for the talent and skill, particularly, of Andriano. Directorially, there are ideas here, but they haven’t been capitalised on. Pity, for, given a little more application, this might’ve been a dish fit for the gods.

And a footnote: again, as seems to be the wont of Factory Space productions in general, many scenes are interrupted, mediated and despoiled by a lush score more befitting Lord Of The Rings. I’m no purist, but interfering with Shakespeare’s text is a dubious and dangerous game. The music is in the words.

The details: Julius Caesar is at the Star of the Sea Theatre in Manly until July 23.

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