Yes, I went again . . .
I’m not sure why – perhaps because I was already prepared for the ‘twist’, or maybe it was as a result of seeing the penultimate performance – but I enjoyed Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female production of Julius Caesar much more the second time around.
There were still elements of the play I didn’t understand, disagreed with and found confusing – why did the soothsayer wander naked, carrying a baby, over the battlefield, and did all the meta-theatrical elements really add anything?
What struck me most on this second viewing was the beauty and clarity of Shakespeare’s language – the women made the verse sing. Though I missed Cush Jumbo’s rendition of ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ back in January, this time I listened out for it and was impressed: Jumbo captured Anthony’s clever manipulation of words, and her facial expression changed over the course of the speech with the growing realisation that she was gradually winning over the fickle crowd. Jumbo made each use of the word ‘honourable’ subtly different, whether sarcastic, menacing or disingenuous.
Again I was struck by Jenny Jules’ Cassius – a fizzing ball of energy, taut as a rope, married to the cause – and enjoyed Frances Barber’s controlling, arrogant Caesar. Clare Dunne was particularly moving in her portrayal of Portia, desperate to be let in to her husband’s world, and her speech about being ‘stronger than her sex’ took on a particular resonance. Dunne also made an interesting, youthful Octavian – strikingly cold-blooded and brutal.
Again, Harriet Walter shone, thin and pale as the tortured, conflicted Brutus. Her eyes were ever watchful as she darted nervous glances at Caesar, and full of pain and sorrow when confronted with a scared and frustrated Portia. Walter progressively weakens as the play continues, and as Brutus becomes ever more disillusioned with the turn of events. Alone on stage in the final seconds, broken, spent and almost in tears, Walter allows us to appreciate the meta-theatrics: her prisoner, like Brutus, has momentarily tasted freedom, got drunk on it, and then had it cruelly snatched away.
Arguably what matters in this production is not the interesting (and sometimes downright strange) use of props, nor the prison setting (though it could be said that it shares some features with ancient Rome), nor even the single-gender casting. When stripped back, the roles in Julius Caesar are remarkably gender-neutral: we’re dealing with the universal human issues of ambition, power, betrayal, greed, love and much more besides. So strong are the performances that you quickly forget these are women playing roles intended for men, and therein lies the triumph.