Power, identity & politics: Women come out from behind the men in the potent, thoughtful Portia’s Julius Caesar

Nikki Duval & Christine Horne. Set & costume design by Rachel Forbes. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Shakespeare’s women continue to take centre stage this summer—this time, with Shakespeare in the Ruff’s production of AD Kaitlyn Riordan’s Portia’s Julius Caesar, a potent and thoughtful adaptation of Julius Caesar from the point of view of the women in this story. The sharply wrought script weaves the text woven from 17 Shakespeare plays, four sonnets and a poem with new dialogue—and the women behind the men come to the fore as they wrestle with their own issues of identity, power and justice. Directed by Eva Barrie, Portia’s Julius Caesar is currently running outdoors in Toronto’s Withrow Park.

While all of Rome celebrates Caesar’s (Jeff Yung) triumphant return from a successful campaign against the sons of Pompey, his wife Calpurnia (Nikki Duval) confides in her bosom friend Portia, wife to Brutus (Christine Horne), regarding her concerns over their lack of an heir and Caesar’s relationship with the legendary Cleopatra, who she fears may usurp her. Nursing a newborn son herself, Portia is supportive and optimistic for her friend’s chances of bearing a child; but soon finds herself uneasy in her own marriage as Brutus (Adriano Sobretodo Jr.) becomes increasingly distant and absent from their home.

Meanwhile, some in Rome are troubled by Caesar’s desire for a crown, which he hides with false humility; and there are those who fear that the republic may become a monarchy ruled by a boisterous, boasting tyrant. Among these are Servilia (Deborah Drakeford), Brutus’s imperious power-brokering mother and Cassius (Kwaku Okyere), Brutus’s friend—who both fan his deep concerns over Caesar’s popularity and hunger for power. Choosing his love of Rome over his love of Caesar, Brutus joins Cassius and a group of like-minded conspirators in a deadly plan to put a stop to Caesar’s rise to power. Hiding in the shadows to learn what is afoot, Portia catches wind of the plan; now faced with wanting to warn her friend Calpurnia but not betray her husband, she goes to Calpurnia with a story of a dream of Caesar’s bloody statue. Coupled with the Soothsayer’s (Tahirih Vejdani) recent warning, Calpurnia attempts to stop Caesar from going to the Senate on that fateful day—even after Brutus has persuaded him to do so—but fails to convince.

The actions that follow create a heartbreaking rift between Calpurnia and Portia, and make for additional tragedy in this tale of power, propaganda and loyalty. Portia fears for her life and that of her son when Marc Antony (Giovanni Spina) turns the people against Brutus, Cassius and their fellow assassins. Returning home to find Brutus gone, Portia learns that Servilia has secreted their son away to keep him safe. But how safe can anyone be in these chaotic, bloody times? In the end, the living are left to mourn their dead—and judge themselves for their actions in the outcome.

Remarkable work from Duval and Horne as Calpurnia and Portia; friends of their own accord, with a relationship separate from that of their husbands, these women truly love, nurture and support each other. Duval gives a moving performance as Calpurnia; an intelligent woman, well aware of her husband’s station and rise to power, Calpurnia beats herself up for not having children and blames herself for his womanizing. And seeing her friend nurse her baby makes Calpurnia want a child even more. Horne deftly mines Portia’s internal conflict as a contented, happy mother and supportive wife and friend whose reach only goes so far. Portia simply can’t wait on the sidelines when she knows that something serious is afoot with Brutus—and her insistence that he confide in her comes from a genuine desire to help. Longing to not only do their duty, but be real, invested partners to their husbands, Calpurnia and Portia can only respond as events emerge—and do what they believe is right under the circumstances. Drakeford gives a striking performance as the sharp-witted, intimidating yet vulnerable Servilia. Unable to wield direct political power herself, Servilia employs what influence she has to persuade individuals and manage events; and with no female role models at the time, she appears to model her behaviour after that of powerful men—perhaps finding herself at odds with her natural instincts.

The outstanding ensemble also includes a Young Ruffian Chorus (Troy Sarju, Sienna Singh and Jahnelle Jones-Williams); and the male actors also portray the various washerwomen—as women and slaves, they represent the lowest among the 99% in Rome. Okyere’s fiery, volatile, hasty Cassius is the perfect foil to Sobretodo’s cool, diplomatic, calculating Brutus. Spina does a great job balancing Antony’s fired-up warrior and eloquent orator; and, in addition to the enigmatic Soothsayer, Vejdani gives us a playful and seductive Casca, a Roman courtesan in this adaptation whose part in the plot includes distracting Antony from the impending plot against Caesar.

Portia’s Julius Caesar continues at Withrow Park (in the space just south of the washrooms) until September 3, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (no show on August 27, but there will be a special Labour Day performance on Sept 3); the show runs 110 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets are PWYC at the venue (cash only: $20 suggested); advance tickets available online for $20 (regular) or $30 (includes camp chair rental).

Bring a blanket, beach towel or chair; bug spray also recommended. Concerned about the possible impact of weather conditions on a performance? Keep an eye out on Shakespeare in the Ruff’s Twitter feed or Facebook page for updates and cancellations.

In the meantime, check out this insightful and revealing Toronto Star piece by Carly Maga about the show, including an interview with AD/playwright Kaitlyn Riordan.

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SummerWorks: A powerful, unforgettable & unique theatrical experience in The Container

HERO-The-Container-Publicity-Image-Colour-smallBefore we are led into the metal shipping container, some of us wonder out loud about the heat, the dark, the air. The closeness of others. And we’re just the audience for Clare Bayley’s play The Container, directed by Zachary Florence and running at the Theatre Centre back lot during SummerWorks.

Once inside, we sit on stacks of narrow palettes that line the inner edges of the container, light cushions making the seating more comfortable. We’d each been given a bottle of water and told that if we needed to leave the container, for whatever reason, to stand up or raise a hand – and one of the actors would escort us out. Four people enter: two men and two women. The door of the container slams shut with a loud metallic boom and we are thrown into darkness. Then, one by one, small lights appear – the four actors have flashlights – but the atmosphere is tense with fear and uncertainty, audience placed in extreme close-up with a simulated refugee smuggling operation.

And the journey unfolds, another refugee enters: a woman, who is sick to her stomach shortly after she arrives, and another woman uses the makeshift latrine in the corner, her young companion holding up a scarf to give her some privacy. Although not sensed directly, the audience is reminded of the sickening smells that would be accompanying such a journey.

The cast does a remarkable job of with the complex range of emotions in such a situation. These characters can’t stay in their home country, and must risk travelling to England illegally, paying thousands of dollars, and putting their lives and futures into the hands of men they don’t know. Desperation. Fear. Hope. Despair. Love. Distrust. Kindness. Cruelty. Each has a story, a reason, a goal. Fatima (played with guile and strength by Bola Aiyeola) and Asha (Ubah Guled, bringing a kind, tender and hopeful young woman), fleeing life in a refugee camp. Jemal (played with strength and conviction by Adriano Sobretodo Jr.) longs to be united with his young family, while former businessman Ahmad (played with a nice layering of fierceness and moral frailty by Sugith Varughese) worries about his financial future and that of his children. The newcomer to the group, Mariam (played with a lovely balance of vulnerability and courage by Lara Arabian), is a recent widow and has a secret – her illness is not what it seems. And Constantine Karzis is equal parts seductive and snake-like as the Agent/middleman to this mission of refugee smuggling.

We got the mildest taste of what it would be like to be a refugee being smuggled across borders this way – but we knew, in this simulated environment, that freedom was 60 minutes away. And we heaved a collective sigh of relief as we got back outside into the sunshine and cool breeze.

Winner of the 2007 Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award, The Container is a powerful, unforgettable and unique theatrical experience.

The Container runs until Sun, Aug 17 – performance dates include two shows per day; check for details here.

For more info on refugee protection, visit the sites of: Canadian Council of Refugees, Romero House or The UN Refugee Agency (thanks to The Container folks for providing this info in the program).