Playwright Kaitlyn Riordan had Shakespeare’s women—or lack thereof— on her mind when she constructed Portia’s Julius Caesar for Shakespeare in the Ruff playing in Withrow Park. She decided to create “a new Shakespearean play where we meet all kinds of women” using a mixture of Shakespear’s language from plays, sonnets, poetry and her own writing.
The result is an attempt to flesh out women’s roles that doesn’t quite succeed for me in the execution.
Caesar (Jeff Yung) is victorious, having brought peace to Rome. Portia (Christine Horne) is happy with her husband Brutus (Adriano Sobretodo Jr.) home with her and her newly-born son. Her best friend Calpurnia (Nikki Duval) longs to have a child with her husband Caesar but struggles to conceive.
Portia’s peaceful world, however, is slowly upended as Brutus becomes part of his mother Servilia’s (Deborah Drakeford) political machinations to stop Caesar from becoming a monarch.
There’s a lot to like in Portia’s Julius Caesar. From the cast to the direction by Eva Barrie, I think it’s a solid night at the theatre.
In fact, the cast is faultless.
Horne as Portia is incredible. The character never descends into melodrama. She is a pragmatic, good-natured woman who is happy where she is, who wants to do the right thing but understands the nuances of her decisions. Between Riordan’s writing and Horne’s performance, there’s just nothing to do but heap on the praise.
Meanwhile, Duval is striking as Calpurnia, a woman who is constantly belittled, betrayed, and dismissed. It would be so easy to make the character a one-dimensional quirky friend, but Duval creates someone genuine in their humour, frustration, and betrayal.
The relationship between Portia and Calpurnia is also a massive highlight of the show. They aren’t wilting flowers, but people who want things, who fight and tease, and care about each other. Horne and Duval have such good chemistry.
You might expect a lot of angst in this show, but Riordan infuses her side characters with sly humour and outlandish personalities. This is best encapsulated in the washerwomen portrayed by Sobretodo Jr., Yung, Kwaku Okyere (also Cassius) and Giovanni Spina (who also plays Marc Antony).
They’re like wind-up toys: wind them up and watch them steal their scenes. Spina, in particular, has a hilarious moment with Brutus as he petulantly complains about the mysterious guests showing up at night, noting that not only does he not recognize them, but that half of them are in disguise.
These are, of course, the senators planning the murder.
With so many good moments in Portia’s Julius Caesar, you may be wondering why the piece didn’t quite succeed for me. My problem stems from Riordan’s stated goal versus the final script. My guest summed it up nicely: if the purpose was to see more of the women’s story, why was so much time spent with the men?
Arguably, the story of Julius Caesar is somewhat familiar to audiences, what Portia thought about it, or Calpurnia’s struggles with conceiving a child, or even Cleopatra’s (played by Tahirih Vejdani) precarious position as a prisoner or political guest, is much more interesting because we haven’t heard it before.
Unbalanced was the word my guest used when discussing the story, and I have to agree. There is so much time spent with Brutus and the other senators. The introduction of Servilius serves little purpose overall as her role could easily not exist, and much of the play would remain unchanged, except for the loss of Drakeford’s performance.
Considering the play feels very long, I can’t help but wonder if cutting the old familiar story might serve the meat of the piece: the struggle of Portia and Calpurnia. At the moment it’s too much the same story for any of the points to come through.
There are discussions of motherhood, discussions of being widowed, of being a woman in a man’s world, but I think the structure contradicts itself because it’s still the men we’re watching make the decisions.
I don’t think these aspects necessarily detract from the overall experience, but I personally felt a little disappointed. If you like the story of Julius Caesar, then you will like Portia’s Julius Caesar. Just don’t expect it to rewrite history.
- Portia’s Julius Caesar runs until September 3rd in Withrow Park (between Logan Ave. and Carlaw Ave.)
- Shows run Tuesday to Sunday at 7:30pm
- Tickets are PWYC, cash only, with a recommended donation of $20
- Tickets can be purchased at the box office prior to the show or online here
- Chairs and blankets are available to rent for the performance
- Information on accessibility and relaxed performances can be found here
- An additional performance will be held Monday September 3rd
Photo of Catherine Horne and Nikki Duval by Dahlia Katz