Think you I am no stronger than my sex?
Given the increasing coverage of the persistent gender imbalance in the arts, the news of the Donmar’s decision to stage an all-female production of Shakespeare’s testosterone-fuelled Julius Caesar was perhaps not wholly surprising. However, the production would have to do more than merely demonstrate that some of Shakespeare’s powerhouse roles could be convincingly played by women.
Designer Bunny Christie has stripped back the theatrical space, even removing the rows of seats in the stalls and replacing them with grey plastic chairs. Grey predominates, from the cast’s grubby tracksuits to the flickering CCTV screens, metal staircases and platforms. Director Phyllida Lloyd has chosen to set her Julius Caesar in a women’s prison, and the lack of an interval helps reinforce the concept that the audience are trapped in the space as much as the inmates; there’s no escaping this director’s vision.
In Lloyd’s interpretation the factions of ancient Rome are represented by the various prison gangs with Frances Barber’s Caesar ruling the roost. Barber enters with a swagger, dismissing a magazine horoscope that tells her to ‘beware the Ides of March’. Anthony (a disappointing performance by Cush Jumbo) is here portrayed as her bitch and simply a pretty face. Soon Barber has the whole cast dancing to her tune, literally, as they wear masks portraying her own face. I had heard many negative reports of Barber’s Caesar, and though she does bluster and bellow her way about the stage dressed like an Eastern European dictator, her interpretation of Caesar is a bold one – not many could carry off using a Krispy Kreme as a weapon – even if it doesn’t allow for any nuance of character; her Caesar’s power is based purely on fear.
Jenny Jules’ Cassius is all ablaze, unable to stand still, possessed of a single vision and determined to see it through. She provides a strong foil to Harriet Walter’s towering performance of Brutus, quashing with every movement any who might be tempted to claim that women cannot play these roles just as well as, if not better than, me. Through Walter’s Brutus the difference between sacrificers and butchers, purgers and murderers is given layers of meaning. As she paces up and down, hands in the pocket of her greatcoat and hair slicked back, her pallid face and intense gaze command the stage, emphasising Brutus’ anguish and internal struggle and intense need to justify his actions.
The first ninety minutes of this two-hour long production zip along at a heady pace as we’re swept up in what we believe to be Julius Caesar transposed to a women’s prison. However, when Frances Barber’s Caesar reappears very much alive after being stabbed, we realise that Lloyd has transformed it into a play-within-a-play. Unfortunately, this is where the production starts to unravel. Furthermore, this isn’t even a play-within-a-play but a rehearsal, as we are now frequently reminded through the various interruptions of prison wardens as fight scenes get out-of-hand. The effect is to dissipate the tension built up thus far and threaten the effect of the prison setting and the commentary it provides on a different sort of politics and ambition.
The final twist comes moments before the end, at lock-up, as Frances Barber whips off her coat revealing that she was actually a screw all along, not an inmate. Is this another example of Lloyd taking her vision a step too far or is it a further comment on the female situation: in prison the inmates are not allowed to play the major roles just as women in the arts often struggle to do so. And yet the final word must be given to Walter’s Brutus who, as the women are herded off to their cells, is left broken and spent, her brief taste of freedom cruelly snatched away.
That women can play Shakespeare’s great male roles is clear. They may even bring more depth and nuance to them in some cases, and Lloyd has drawn some superb performances from her cast, which includes members of the Clean Break Theatre Company. The powerful prison setting might have worked, but was undone by the extra burden of turning this ground-breaking production into a play-within-a-play.