Having watched a fairly traditional take on Shakespeare a couple of days ago with All’s Well That Ends Well, I thought I would head for a more radical interpretation of the next with a 2012 production of Julius Caesar. For reasons that I won’t bore you with (although if you want to be bored please click here) it’s a play I’ve never really got on with so it was a pleasant surprise to find that this was a production fired through with inventiveness and attitude and which made the whole play relevant and engrossing.
The play was the first in what became an eventual trilogy for the Donmar Warehouse (along with Henry IV and The Tempest) featuring an all-female cast under the direction of Phyllida Lloyd. Given that there are nominally only two female roles in this most male oriented of plays (relatively brief appearances by the wives of Caesar and Brutus) this decision was a bold one. It’s also been reinterpreted as a play set in a specific context and with a framing narrative of a women’s prison with the drama enacted as therapy for the inmates. Thus, the actors are playing prisoners who are in turn playing Shakespeare and we receive as many glimpses into the lives of the prisoners as we do the politicians and soldiers they play. At a couple of points in the play “reality” actually breaks in. The scene where the mob tear Cinna the poet to pieces is played as a real prison fight and warders step in to break it up while the nightly lockin curtails the performance ahead of schedule. Though I’m making it sound like a combination of Prisoner Cell Block H and Shakespeare there is no doubt that this radical rethink by an all-female company gives real purpose and contemporary relevance to a story that has become far too well known and has lost some of its force in doing so.
The setting for all this is a prison gym, actually a purpose constructed temporary theatre near Kings Cross. Bunny Christie has designed everything to be grey and soulless with strip lighting and metal caging which is used to great effect during the battle scenes. The actors wear colourless institutional sweatpants and hoodies over which some other basic costume is worn. These often serve to delineate character as in Caesar’s long black leather coat which becomes a mark of rank, is temporarily appropriated by Mark Antony and ends up on the back of Octavius. Guns replace swords although they are obviously toy/fake – no prison is going to let inmates play with anything resembling a real weapon; the shots are delineated by a snare drum, part of a whole kit that is wheeled on and thrashed mercilessly in the second half to recreate the battle scenes.
Leading the company is Harriet Walter as Hannah/Brutus. She gives an extraordinary (though unsurprisingly so) performance as the man with a dilemma. Her voice, lowered a tone or two, is full of grit and determination and makes Shakespeare’s words seem newly minted. Her scene with Cassisus, an equally impressive Martina Laird, when the two fall out is full of tension not only among the two characters but the two prisoners behind those characters. Jade Anouka makes a fine stab (sorry) at Mark Antony and the production really finds a completely fresh angle on “Friends, Romans, countrymen…”. Sheila Atim sings beautifully, Karen Dunbar’s Glaswegian Casca introduces some dark humour and Claire Dunne also scales the heights as a highly manipulative Octavius. The final moments when Mark Antony begins a press conference only to have it hijacked by Octavius is a clever comment on the power politics at play. Caesar is imposingly played by Jackie Clune as the prison’s head honcho always in danger of being toppled by those beneath and who is assassinated right in the midst of the audience with a multiple stabbing and a bottle of toilet bleach. Basically, there is not a weak link in the company and the only shame is that you can’t choose your own focus because I think there were bound to be some fascinating touches going on just off camera.
This production positively redeemed Julius Caesar in my eyes and also made me think about the therapeutic use of drama in prison situations. Channelling forces into something creative rather than destructive can only be of ultimate benefit to society. It is also, it goes without saying, a timely moment to be replaying this production which centres on people who have had their freedoms curtailed playing out the ongoing power politics of a country’s leaders who are only succeeding in representing their own interests. Although there are more traditional versions of the play available online this is absolutely the one you should go for.
Production photos by Helen Maybanks
Julius Caesar is available via Marquee TV – click here, Broadway HD – click here and is also currently available on Britbox – click here
The other two plays in this all female Shakespeare trilogy, Henry IV and The Tempest are also available from the same sources
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