***** (out of five)
Reviewed by James Karas
Julies Caesar, now running at the Donmar Warehouse in London, has an all-female cast and there may be people who consider that important or noteworthy. It deserves mention if only to remind us of the all-male productions of Shakespeare plays in the West End.. What counts is that this is a brilliant production; a leap of the creative imagination and acting ability that provide for riveting and memorable theatre.
It is different from anything most of us who have seen and studied the play can imagine. Forget the togas and Greek columns and all the classical allusions we are used to. In fact it is probably impossible to find such a traditional production any more.
This is a production that is almost a parody of the play. I say that without a hint of adverse criticism. Despite the fact that there are numerous line cuts, the spirit of the play is maintained. Let me elaborate.
Where is the play set? The production is being put on in a prison by women inmates. That much we can figure out but where they think the action takes place is more difficult determine. The inmates wear their prison garb; there are television monitors around but we cannot be sure if they are props for the play or prison security equipment. They use toy plastic guns and some of them wear face masks that are usually worn by terrorists. The inmates produce Julius Caesar and they set it somewhere in the modern world because that is all the props that they have or because they see it as a modern play?
The production is under the watchful eye of the guards and when the actors get out of line they are ordered to behave. When Cassius tells us it’s his birthday, the inmates who are putting on the play burst out singing “Happy Birthday To You” and are told to knock it off. When the play finishes the prison guards come out and tell the cast that they have five minutes to clear out.
Needless to say, the inmates have very few props to work with and the play is put on in an empty prison room or perhaps yard.
The unlikely concept works because the “inmates” are hugely talented. Shakespeare provides the plot and the language – especially the language – and the set, the setting and all the other theatrical paraphernalia become of secondary importance when the words, be they poetry or prose, are delivered with emotional conviction, force and proper diction.
It is here that director Phyllida Lloyd and the cast excel. Frances Barber, wearing a beret and a leather coat, exemplifies the arrogant Caesar while maintaining her identity as a prisoner. When Cassius, whom he distrusts, goes to Caesar’s house, the latter, acting like an arrogant dictator or a prison bully, stuffs a bagel in his mouth. The Roman dictator and the prison thug become inseparable.
Harriet Walter is a lean and tall Brutus. She is principled, honourable and delivers her lines with superb conviction. A fine performance indeed.
Cassius, the scheming political animal, is played by Jenny Jules and again you feel she is playing the inmate as well as the Roman patrician.
Cush Jumbo is a baby-faced Mark Antony who can deliver Shakespearean lines with precision and marvelous intonation. His Funeral Oration is beautifully nuanced. This girl may be in jail but she has found her forte, it seems.
I will not list all the roles but will pay them the highest compliment most notably for the duality of the characters that the actors played. They are prisoners and characters in Julius Caesar and we are always aware of it.
The play is cut to a little over two hours with no intermission and we are never allowed to forget that we are in prison. That duality together with sure-handed directing and strong acting made for a riveting night at the theatre.
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare opened on November 30, 2012 and continues until February 9, 2013 at Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, London, England.