Donmar’s Julius Caesar

An all-female Julius Caesar?  Well, it starred Harriet Walter as Brutus, so that was reason enough to see it.  In fact, we got a two-for-one bonus, as we were unaware that the wonderful Frances Barber was the eponymous leader.  This production has had mixed reviews, but I found it thought-provoking and quite gripping.  (Read the Torygraph’s hurrumphing male-chauvinist bewilderment here.)

Perhaps the greatest point made by this production is that once we’re all sucked into the drama, it doesn’t matter whether the actors are male or female:  it only matters that they are good actors (which was, fortunately, the case here).  Harriet Walter was Brutus; Jenny Jules was Cassius.  If you have great actors, why not let them play roles they want to play, even if it means a bit of cross-dressing?  I loved Michael Brown’s Viola and Mark Rylance’s Olivia in the all-male Globe production of Twelfth Night ten years ago (was it really that long?):  it took very little time to forget that they were blokes in drag.  I’m also very fond of 18th-century opera, in which women playing men is completely normal.  Men and women can write the opposite sex convincingly, why can’t they play them equally convincingly?  The neutrality of sex (gender?) was presumably a reason for staging the play in a women’s prison:  the sexless prisoners’ clothing helped de-sex the characters or the actors or both, so that we were left with the personality – after all, stripped of social convention, there’s very little that separates male from female in terms of personality and intellect.  (See Dorothy L. Sayers passim.)

The absorbtion of everyone into the play was itself a theme.  We were definitely in a women’s prison at first, and the drama – not Shakespeare yet – was about the prisoners, the most popular and charismatic of whom (Barber) had just been allowed back.  (Of course there was the obligatory lesbian kiss between Barber’s character and the woman who was to become Mark Antony.)  Not having read any reviews, we were not sure whether the drama would be a play-in-a-play or whether Julius Caesar was going to be adapted to explore prison politics.  It was the former (happily, I think), and once it started, the women became less themselves and more there characters:  so much so that at the end, when the warders (including the recently deceased Caesar) came in to enforce the curfew, the actors were all stunned at being interrupted – which, of course, they were not, as the play had finished.

There were a couple of other warder-interruptions during the play, as a prisoner was hoiked out, mid-line, and then a fight broken up (the bit where the mob lays into Cinna the Poet).  These were, I felt, unwelcome:  they made no sense dramatically, and I thought the ‘fucking fucking fuck’ script was gratuitous.  If there were to be any interruptions, they perhaps should have been mimed, to continue the ambiguity between drama and reality, and to avoid the contrast between Shakespeare’s masterful words and crass profanities.  The warders continuously patrolling the catwalk was a lovely idea, not least because it was quite subtle.

The conspirators all put on red plastic gloves to signify Caesar’s blood.  I thought at first that this was a silly gimmick, but the longer the gloves stayed on, the better the idea seemed.  The appearance of the soothsayer naked was, however, a bit silly – although not at all shocking, since everyone was de-sexed.  At all other times, the soothsayer (Carrie Rock) was well done, a slightly disturbed and simple character whom no-one really listened to but who was absolutely right.  She reminded me a bit of Baby Jane from Jerry Springer The Opera.

The music was really effective – the horrid noise of heavy metal to describe a battle was ingenious.  But it was too loud.  Health and Safety should have meant that we were issued with ear defenders.  The scene changes were so slick – one of the audience members, sitting on what would be Caesar’s senate seat, was moved to another seat and back again with so little fuss that I thought she must be one of the cast.

Above all, the cast was mightily impressive – Walter and Barber not included, for I’ve been a devotee of theirs for years.  I definitely want to see more of Cush Jumbo (Mark Antony), who was crowd-pullingly charismatic in the famous speech.  Jenny Jules (Cassius), too; gosh.  A couple of the actors (the excellent Carrie Rock and Jen Joseph) came from the Clean Break drama school.  Does this mean that they’ve had more experience of prisons than would even be required for method acting?  If they are typical products of Clean Break, then this is a school to watch out for.

I saw the point much more in this than in the Globe’s Tempest with Vanessa Redgrave as Prospero – even though Prospero is arguably a less outright male personage.  This production has, for me anyway, freed up Julius Caesar from being man thing.

PS. There’s just been a lovely programme on Radio 4, ‘Who was Rosalind?‘, in which Susan Hitch investigated the boys-only world of the Shakespearean stage. Listen to Adrian Lester on how he approached, or should have approached, playing Rosalind.  Lovely stuff.

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