Singapore Repertory Theatre
Fort Canning Park
Even Shakespeare would have been hard-pressed to imagine a more fitting global backdrop for Julius Caesar than the events of May 2018. From the tightrope diplomacy of the Trump-Kim negotiations and the distant pomp of a royal wedding, to the unexpected ouster of the world’s longest-ruling coalition in Malaysia, the stars seemed aligned for the Elizabethan political commentary to take on new relevance. Happily for us, the Singapore Repertory Theatre (under Guy Unsworth’s astute direction) matched this “tide of times” in its recent production that turned the text’s timeless cadences towards contemporary concerns, with particular resonance for the urgent political anxieties of Southeast Asia.
Despite some self-conscious references to scenes of international summitry (Rome itself was re-imagined as R.O.M.E., an alliance of seven nations), there was much in the SRT’s adaptation that spoke directly to the region’s complex power relations. The regime-changing potential of mass protest – as experienced in Thailand, Myanmar and elsewhere – was all too visible in the clamour of a dynamic ensemble, while Unsworth’s decision to stage the clash between Brutus’ and Octavius’ supporters as occurring between riot police and demonstrators brought to mind similar confrontations on the eve of Malaysia’s polls. Deeper questions behind such shows of popular will (Who holds the reins of power? Whose interests are truly being represented?) were brilliantly explored in Thomas Pang’s command of Mark Antony’s character, the classic demagogue, but also in Julie Wee’s persuasive performance as Cassius, who tipped the indecisive Brutus into action by creating an impression of widespread support.
An element of the spectacular was ever present in the SRT’s engagement with contemporary affairs, from the escalating numbers of ‘Likes’ and ‘Retweets’ flashed on the LED displays each time Julius Caesar (Jo Kukathas) waved to her adoring crowds, to the scene of Casca (Daniel Jenkins) having his throat slit over Skype during the face-off on the plains of Philippi.
But the intimate relationship between pop culture and modern politics allowed Unsworth to explore such moments as parody as well as satire, drawing on a cosmopolitan set of visual references. The progress of the conspirators towards the Capitol (presented as a set of spotlit freeze-frames), for example, and the slow-motion stabbing of Julius Caesar (with Brutus’ final blow bathed in red light) paid homage to countless film-noir thrillers of the last century. Even Casca’s killing, itself choreographed for maximum effect by Octavius and Mark Antony, would have been recognized by faithful viewers as a reference to House of Cards’ fifth season.
Closer to home, the play made subtle commentary on Singapore’s political landscape. The recent charges against activist Jolovan Wham for vandalism (for putting up two pieces of paper on an MRT train) could not have been far from audiences’ minds as Flavius (Tia Andrea Guttensohn) spray-painted the word “tyrant” across the screens at the end of the first scene. Casting Kukathas as Julius Caesar, a choice that made full use of the veteran actress’ phenomenal sense of presence and gravitas, was also a deft gesture towards the recent election of a non-Chinese woman to the Presidency.
More shrewdly, perhaps, the staging of this political drama on the slopes of Fort Canning Hill, the seat of political legitimacy in Singapore since pre-colonial times, delivered a pointed assessment of the city-state’s political intrigues and philosophies of rule. After all, both former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s brand of ruthless pragmatism, and his successor Goh Chok Tong’s vision of virtuous, “constant” leadership, were dramatized in the cut and thrust of the play and taken to their logical conclusions.
Ultimately, the most fraught and fruitful aspect of power examined in this production may not have been in any of its strictly political manifestations, but its toll on the characters’ relationships, brought to life in two of the play’s most compelling moments. First was Guttensohn’s sensitive performance (as Portia) opposite Ghafir Akbar (as Brutus) in Act II Scene I, a heart-breaking exchange that was a fragment of a scene in Shakespeare’s original, but given full and well-deserved treatment in Unsworth’s adaptation. Equally effective was the dialogue between Wee (Cassius) and Akbar (Brutus) in Act IV Scene III, where the warring demands of loyalty, truth and principle played havoc on a friendship which had thus far been Rome’s best guarantor of “peace, freedom and liberty”. In both instances, grand and world-changing schemes were peeled back to reveal their tragic effects on how the characters saw each other, a reminder of the invisible fractures wrought by power on our closest relationships.
At the very end of the play, the entire set – with its stylish round stage entrance – was turned symbolically into the aperture of a camera, with a bright flash of light towards the crowd marking the final fall of the curtains. The audience was captured (as it were) in the first, ecstatic moment of applause, implicating us together with the cast in a time-honoured ritual of power and performance, as much a verdict on the production as on the ever-present workings of interpersonal and international politics in the background. The applause, however, was hearty and well-deserved: the least we could give for a timely production, and one that turned its lens thoughtfully and humanely on ourselves.
Theophilus Kwek is a Singapore-based writer