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Julius Caesar – Donmar Warehouse, London

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Phyllida Lloyd

Reviewer: Georgina Newman

[rating:4]

This bold re-telling of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar boasts an all-female cast and a staging of the play-within-a-play – its reenactment performed by a band of inmates inside a modern-day Royal Holloway.

With the original play only sporting two female rôles, the grand conspiracy to bring down the Roman dictator, Caesar, was strictly a male affair. Phyllida Lloyd’s version therefore, is easily stretching and provocative, its backdrop an apt battleground for the staging of such a play, allowing the themes of power abuse, political tyranny, conspiracy, assassination, and retribution to congruously emerge.

Bunny Christie’s set is superbly spartan: three floors of rusty metal stairways and walkways, peeling paintwork, plastic chairs, strips of harsh lighting, banging doors, and the jingling of keys. CCTV screens overhang the stage, monitoring outside movement and activity, creating the sense of a larger prison-house and a life outside the primary focus on stage. It’s an effectively intimidating sight: prisoners in grey tracksuits and hoods, faces masked by balaclavas, brandishing toy handguns and machine guns, forging rally cries with vocal cords, amplified guitars, cake tins, drums, and whistles, all the while a contemporary nod to crime, to gang and prison culture, to the prevalence of surveillance, and to terrorist operations. Such chaotic scenes are tempered by the curious visit of the spooky soothsayer or Brutus in reflection, and by some very fine theatrical performances.

Frances Barber’s Caesar is a that of a strapping, antagonistic, loud-mouthed bully, with a tendency to force-feed doughnuts to certain inmates as stand-in for some other mild form of torture. Barber leaves out nuance and subtlety to convey a brutalised being, a smiling psychopath, quick to violence and confrontation and hoping to lead by this example. It’s an interesting and accomplished take on the quality of Caesar. Jenny Jules gives a sharp, straightforward, and impassioned performance as Cassius, while the versatility of Harriet Walter seems to have no bounds. Her interpretation of Brutus defines this production: a turmoiled and complicated figure, pallid with anguish, torn in both personal and political position. In this she commands such masculine presence, not least because of her cropped slick back hair and dampened tones, but in her many insights and inflections, and the easy way in which the words rôle off her tongue. It’s a brilliant performance. The only slight disappointment is Cush Jumbo as Mark Anthony, whose rather unvaried tack doesn’t quite capture the essence of the opposition.

Edgy and highly-charged throughout, the staging of the play by the prisoners is revealed as a cathartic way for them to vent their frustrations, which seems to make it all the more jarring. Lloyd does allow for some confusion, however, as it’s only fully revealed midway through (by the intervention of a prison guard) that we are actually witnessing a rehearsal, a run through of the play by the inmates in the midst of them sorting out their own struggles for power on the inside. Nevertheless, it’s a setup that works well to prop up this play, and when the inmates finally have to return to their normal cell lives upon the play’s conclusion, the comedown paints a far bleaker picture for them, laying the foundations for a real tragedy.

The all-female casting is a pleasing departure, highlighting as it does how far women are sidelined here in the face of men. Save the odd brush with confusion given Lloyd’s heavy conceptualist approach, this is a rebellious and refreshing take on a perhaps undervalued Shakespeare play.

Runs until 9th February 2013

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