Shakespeare’s historical tragedy about Roman democracy is given a feminist reworking in Kaitlyn Riordan’s Portia’s Julius Caesar, presented by Hart House Theatre. As the plot to assassinate the “ambitious” Julius Caesar unfolds—wives, courtesans and servant women gather and scheme from behind the famous scenes. Riordan uses text pulled from several of Shakespeare’s plays, sonnets and her own original verse to bring women to the forefront of the story.
We get to know Brutas’ wife, Portia (athena kaitlin trinh) and her friendship with Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia (Whitney K. Ampadu). You remember Calpurnia’s prophetic dream of Caesar’s statue spouting blood? Here, we learn that it was actually Portia’s dream which Calpurnia, now fearing for her husband’s safety, appropriates as her own. This friendship is a highlight of Riordan’s adaptation; though in performance, the conflict of their final scene together lacks the necessary heat.
There are also new characters and themes. There is Brutas’ mother, Servilia (Alexandra Milne), who has a prideful stake in this drama, prodding her son relentlessly to rise above his humble station. With Portia pregnant and Calpurnia desperate for a child yet unable to conceive, motherhood and progeny are thematic concerns Riordan has brought to the table.
This re-telling has some some intriguing revelations that re-contextualize iconic scenes. A favourite of mine involves Marc Antony (Hardi Zala), Caesar’s close friend who delivers the stirring “Friends, Romans, countrymen…” speech at his funeral and moves the gathered crowd to riot. Zala delivers this passage with affected humility that borders on meekness yet I found him remarkably compelling. We later discover that his motivation is significantly altered from the original, shedding new light on this heartfelt—yet politically strategic—address.
As Casca, portrayed here as a savvy courtesan, Melanie Leon is magnetic and amusing. As is Yusuf Zines’s hot-shot Caesar—coming off more like a cocky young Wall Street bro than an esteemed general and politician, but he is charismatic enough to convey Caesar’s arrogance and make him captivating.
In their scenes together as Portia and Brutas, athena kaitlin trinh and Felix Beauchamp paint a heartfelt portrait of marital love and the emotional cost of the strain placed on it by private and public forces.
Director Eva Barrie has crafted some stunning visuals. As Portia overhears the conspirators plot Caesar’s murder upstage, she has her cross downstage in silhouette. It is an eerie, visually dynamic image that perfectly conveys her eavesdropping without awkwardly hiding her around a corner. It also suggests her significance—as a lurking and aware presence—in the machinations of Roman politics.
Rachel Forbes’ elegant set is both majestic and understated. Her marble columns lining the sides of the stage create a solid sense of place and their break-away rearrangement for the dismantling of Rome is simple yet striking.
Lighting designer Chris Malkowski has achieved an astoundingly naturalistic effect in torchlit scenes. With some offstage trickery, he throws dancing orange light onto the set that looks stunningly authentic.
Though Riordan has done a fine job of weaving the borrowed and invented text into the revised plot, and the play as a whole is structurally sound, hearing familiar passages of text from other plays is distracting. It doesn’t help that all the performers here are so young. There are key moments when, regardless of their skill delivering Elizabethan verse, they lack the life experience to give suitable weight to all the words.
The tragic finale balances the epic and the intimate with some haunting imagery, but doesn’t pack the emotional wallop I was hoping for. As stylish and thoughtful as this production is, most performances don’t resonate deeply enough to achieve full catharsis. And Riordan’s final coda—which acts like a poetic thesis statement—isn’t particularly necessary.