[Interview] Another Bloody Leadership Spill With Bell Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’

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Words by Matt Parnell

In the transcript of my interview with the leading man, and title character, from Bell Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, I say 73 words. Of 1418 words. That’s about 5% of the words, spoken by me, in what was ostensibly a dialogue.

What that tells me, right off the bat, is that there must be a bit of method to Kenneth Ransom’s preparation to the role, which he’s been buried in since June, due to the downright impressive authoritarian power dynamic in the chat we had.

It’s pure coincidence that this performance, a dramatization of one of the earliest recorded political thrillers, happens to be touring amidst the muck of what feels like the 50th leadership spill we’ve seen this decade.

The irony isn’t lost on Ransom.

“It’s been dramatized many times over and over,” Ransom says. “In fact, one of the many characters, Cassius, says, ‘How many times will this lofty scene be acted over?’.

“He’s aware at the time that what they’re doing, the ritualistic killing of Caesar, is something that will be visited again and again and again. It’s revisited on stage throughout the world, but what it’s basically depicting, which is the removal of a leader, is something that Canberra knows a whole lot about!

“There wasn’t necessarily bloodletting in the last few weeks,” Ransom continues, “but there was certainly a deposition”.

Given that they’ve been touring for the show since June, though, there’s nothing that aggressively ham-fistedly refers to the political climate. That isn’t what it’s about, though it’s certainly fun timing.

It’s a play that Ransom says he’s, “sure everybody’s come across it in school at some point”. But if you (like me) haven’t, and have concerns about it being hard to follow Ransom says there’s nothing to fear.

“It’s one of Shakespeare’s clearest plays,” Ransom assures. “We’ve done it in a way that is also clear. I think the feedback we’ve received thus far is that people find it very easy to follow. There’s nothing where people are getting lost, that’s for sure. I think that’s partially the play, the play is clear, but the production clarifies further a lot of the story”.

As for Ransom’s role in the play, as the “shortest lived title character in Shakespeare”, he’s not got much time to state his piece. On that, he says, “I thought to myself, I’ll have to make quite an impact in a short amount of time, and it’s important I make that impact because otherwise what’s the play about?”

He’s also got a sense of the Australian spirit down, hitting a remarkable perspective with statements like, “then I get the second half of the show off! Although I can’t go to the pub, because I have to come back as a ghost!”.

In terms of character curation, it’s a bit hard, surely, to attempt to revitalise a character like Julius Caesar, who has one of the most canvassed personalities in history. Considering that, Ransom pored over other source material, historical data and such but did his best to stay away from other people’s productions of the same play because, “I don’t want to get that in my head”.

What he did onboard, however, was this:

“I started to toy with the idea that Caesar might’ve been a psychopath – the things he was willing to do, the risks he was able to take, the kind of thinking that he used, the way that he rose so incredibly quickly. I think he might’ve had that tendency, he didn’t have fear the way normal people have fear. He was exceptional in some ways, and I’ve toyed with that notion that he actually might’ve been. Had he not been Caesar he might’ve been Hannibal Lecter. He’s that kind of personality.”

Kenneth Ransom flew at me with serious enthusiasm and chops, a veritable barrage of words and concepts about his role, the play, the universe (parallels with American politics?), which ultimately meant that the aforementioned power dynamic let him run his overactive mind to full course. He’s displayed an immersive ability to get entranced by his own role, as well as the production as a whole – dropping references to the “soundscore”, the director (James Evans, for his first Bell Shakespeare production), and Canberra’s own Sara Zwangobani for her role as Marc Antony.

That’ll all be on display at The Playhouse between the 12th and 20th of October. Tickets available through the Canberra Theatre website (https://canberratheatrecentre.com.au/) from $78.50.

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