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The current production of Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse is a curious creature. In what could be seen as a move specifically designed to court controversy, director Phyllida Lloyd has assembled a formidable cast of women to portray testosterone-filled Ancient Romans in one of Shakespeare’s most male-heavy plays. This production was a talking point from its origins onwards, sparking heated debate about how sacrilegious it was to mess around with the Bard like this, and prompting rumbles of disbelief that the actors would be able to pull it off at all.
The funny thing is, it wasn’t the gender-swap casting that I took issue with. I found I quickly forgot that the women in front of me were “pretending” to be men, and got caught up in Shakespeare’s vivid, evocative use of language — expertly spoken by the likes of Harriet Walter and Jenny Jules, whose performances rapidly put paid to the very notion that Shakespeare’s men shouldn’t be played by women. Indeed, the actors’ confidence with the language was the main thing that really worked here. You’d expect nothing less from Walter (Brutus), whose distinguished stage career has included Viola in Twelfth Night and the female half of Antony and Cleopatra; and Frances Barber (Caesar himself) who has previously depicted Lady Macbeth, Ophelia, and by a strange coincidence, also Cleopatra. But their efforts are ably supported by an entire cast of energetic inmates. This production is set in a women’s prison, you see, and for me that’s the problem.
The Donmar Warehouse, as I’m sure most of its patrons would attest, lends itself very well to this kind of setting. Up in the front row of the circle, we leaned over iron railings that were all too reminiscent of prison bars, and below us the stalls consisted of plastic chairs in neatly regimented rows. Most chilling of all were the TV screens positioned to either side and above the centre of the stage, displaying grainy security footage of what was going on behind the scenes. All this effective creation of atmosphere led me to expect more to be made of the prison concept — perhaps the deployment of the TV screens as backdrops, or real violence erupting over who got which part — and in this respect, Lloyd’s production is a disappointment.
Some of the best Shakespearean acting I’ve ever seen was continually undermined by creative choices that should never have got past rehearsals. We were given red gloves in place of blood, toy guns, and the infamous and ominous warning to “beware the Ides of March” read from the horoscope pages of a woman’s weekly. The play was occasionally interrupted by the fleeting appearance of prison wardens, removing some cast members to “take their meds” and forcing a reallocation of parts, suggesting that the whole show was intended to be part of some kind of rehabilitation programme for the inmates. But this was never made clear enough to form a coherent narrative, and the setting became more of a hindrance as time went on. Shakespeare’s text requires a battle scene, and we were presented with one — unfortunately mounted on a wheeled platform complete with drum kit, a spectacle that made it hard to keep a straight face. I’m all for ideas and imaginative staging, but this saw emotional depth substituted for noise and clutter. By far the best parts were those where everything slowed down enough for the audience to take them in, where we were trusted to understand what was happening without unnecessary props and choreography.
Despite this, the acting shines through. Walter and Barber give predictably commanding performances touched with vulnerability; Jenny Jules’ stern Cassius is both believable and riveting; and Clare Dunne is alternately strong and affecting as both Julius Caesar’s wife Portia and successor Octavius (although I would question doubling these major roles — give someone else more to do!) Meanwhile, Cush Jumbo (recently seen in She Stoops to Conquer at the National and the TV drama series Getting On) as Marc Antony quietly gains momentum throughout, building up to a roar with the play’s best-known speech: “Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war!” is a genuine cry of anguished rage, earning Jumbo a place in my list of young actors to watch in future. Her loyal, personable Antony displays a deep understanding of the character, and sits at the heart of a production that, although blood free, doesn’t stint on violence. I won’t give away how Caesar’s assassination is staged here, but suffice it to say that it left more than one of the nearby audience members shocked and stunned.
So overall, this Julius Caesar is nothing like the misguided disaster foreseen by the naysayers — or, at least, not in the way they had anticipated. Among other questionable choices, Lloyd has bravely and rightly sought to challenge the idea that Shakespeare’s men must be portrayed by actors of the same gender, and in this aspect, the show is a triumph. Just as Mark Rylance has gained plaudits for his Olivia in the Globe’s Twelfth Night, this cast deserves praise for their skilful tackling of overtly masculine roles. After all, who’s to say that Lady Macbeth can’t aim at becoming Queen of Scotland, goaded on by her manipulative husband, or that Othello can’t be a black woman struggling against the prejudices of a repressive society? The possibilities are endless…