Wednesday 16 January 2013

Julius Caesar @ The Donmar Warehouse

Phyllida Lloyd’s Julius Caesar at the Donmar is a daring, radical reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s work, not least for its all-female cast.  The setting, however, is a single sex prison that shuns all femininity for butch masculinity.  Well suited to the Donmar, the set is stark, bare and metallic, with CCTV cameras and pacing wardens overhead suggesting the exterior business of the prison, whilst the largely monochromatic costumes include stylised military overcoats.  And some cast members come from the Clean Break Theatre Company of young-offenders, providing authenticity.  Clearly women can be tough too.

The production throws us headlong into prison life, Lloyd employing clever directorial touches and playing with the concept.  Characters moodily stalk with toy guns; Roman chariots are swapped for food trolleys; prophecies are read from trashy magazines; and battle scenes are accompanied by live thrash metal, offering a symbolic raw power.  Caesar’s assassination is particularly well executed – bleach forced down his (her?) throat whilst sat amongst the audience, causing us (as in any public fiasco) to strain to see, many forced to observe on the TV monitors as another character films the proceedings live.  Mark Antony’s famous “friends, Romans, countrymen” speech is also well delivered by Cush Jumbo, who conducts the ensemble in their punctuating oohs, aahs and grunts.

Julius Caesar is essentially a power play between the central quartet of characters – Brutus, Cassius, Mark Antony and Caesar.  This production may not be overtly political in its agenda, but it's far from simply gossiping women.  Structured as a play-within-a-play, the prison context serves to highlight the futility of the characters’ lust for power – they are prisoners after all.  Yet here there is another jostle for power, that between the play and the concept, which threatens to overthrow the drama.  Rather than allow the audience to follow the plot, our attention is often drawn to the creative aspects of the production, the surface dressing.  Tannoy interruptions come from the prison wardens, which only distract from the core narrative.

Though the production is far from transparent, the acting is superb throughout.  As a whole, the cast speak Shakespeare’s verse with clarity and intelligence, but it's the key protagonists who excel.  Frances Barber’s Caesar perhaps relies too heavily on shouting, but as death comes to the tyrannical leader, she writhes and screeches like a monstrous, feline creature.  The deep-voiced Jenny Jules and engaging Cush Jumbo wonderfully portray Cassius and Mark Antony respectively.  At the centre of it all is Harriet Walters’ androgynous Brutus: all slicked back hair, glass cutting cheekbones and a moody demeanour that encapsulates the conflicted character.  These stellar performances ensure the drama always remains compelling and intense amongst a surrounding concept that confounds as much as it delights.