In most modern productions of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” Mark Antony’s famous oration brings the first act to a close. At the Abbey Theatre’s uneven production Tuesday night, it might as well have ended the entire show – it seemed as if an entirely new one began after intermission.
Music from Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” lent a sense of weight and solemnity to what would soon unfold onstage as the audience filtered in. This sober tone permeated Jon Bausor’s set and costumes throughout the first act, but this elegance was lost entirely in the second.
The set in the first act, consisting of light grey panels that extended to the ceiling, was easily manipulated in concert with Paul Keoghan’s outstanding lighting design to evoke diverse locations and atmospheres. Openings in the wall panels defined architecture and entryways; lighting from the sides of the stage created dramatic contrasts and, with director Jason Byrne’s adept blocking, cast moody, telling shadows.
Thoughtfully rendered in layers of dusty neutrals, the costumes were neither particularly ancient nor particularly Roman; they did nothing to pin down a temporal context for the play. But that may have been the point – political strife is not restricted to any one era, after all. When Caesar appeared in the senate to accept the crown, the costumes became more historical: draped, cream-colored fabrics, accented in purple and gold, lent a sense of formality to the proceedings.
These elements contributed to the general seamlessness of the first half, even as time passed and locations changed. Buoyed by moments of Shakespearean elegance, the first act crescendoed to Antony’s well-known speech. In spite of the loutish Antony’s (Aidan Kelly) awkward declamation, the affective energy of the crowd of plebeians onstage, but 25 people strong, lent the scene its stirring passion.
Perhaps it was the change to darker scenery, the turn to military action, or the encampment of snickering adolescent boys filling the back rows of the theater – most likely it was a confluence of these conditions – but the second act failed to captivate as the former had. The minimalism of the first act gave way to busier costumes (complete with armor and capes), more synthetic sounds, and a plethora of props in the second – although some semblance of the first act aesthetic was retained in the lack of a backdrop to cover the stage wall or legs to hide the lights. When measured against the austerity of the first act, these elements served as distractions more than anything else, and heightened the jarring sense of detachment.
Despite this disparity, many players were constant in their performances across both acts. As Cassius, Frank McCusker bellowed and conspired with fiery fervor, entirely convincing in his radical actions. Declan Conlon’s Brutus was appropriately less volatile, but his nuanced performance occasionally suffered from a surfeit of energy and soft-spoken lines. Initially bringing some comic relief, Peter Hanly’s Casca, strangely bespectacled, was the most sympathetic conspirator of them all.
But for all these players’ talk, the actor with the greatest presence had the fewest lines of all. All rolled R’s and hissing S’s, Robert O’Mahoney played Caesar with a charismatic swagger. Unfortunately, when he died before intermission, he took the best of this production with him.