Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar – Donmar Warehouse, until 09 February 2013 Book Tickets

The amount of column inches generated in discussion of Phylida Lloyd’s all-female production of Julius Caesar would be admirable if the content of the articles had done much more than highlight just how deeply conservative the British theatre scene really is and how it still runs far behind Europe when it comes to pushing new boundaries.

Balaclavas: The accessory of choice for every fashion-conscious would-be assassin It is this reviewer’s opinion that such arguments are so lacking in depth that they brook little need for response. Indeed the best rejoinder is to point across London to the Apollo Theatre where Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry are currently commanding plenty of column inches of their own but mainly on account of their acting abilities rather than any discussion of gender.

The usual argument is that an all-male casts generates its legitimacy through ‘tradition’ but this is somewhat undermined by the plaudits given to the RSC’s superb all-Black production of Julius Caesar, or by idly speculating whether Rylance and Fry are performing under torchlight and with an unruly audience urinating in the stalls.

An all-female production is necessary due to the rather obvious point that Shakespeare, like the majority of pre-20th century playwrights, did not write many great parts for women and considering we have a much greater attachment to the classics than our European neighbours – should we really exclude so much fine actors from some of the greatest roles in the English language?

Indeed let us return to Shakespeare himself to labour the point yet further: ‘the play’s the thing, Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King’ Stretching this laborious point to breaking possibly, it reminds us that the purpose of the play is to elicit reaction, to be a delivery mechanism for showing to the audience something that it wasn’t expecting. On this score it is hard to deny that Phylida Lloyd has more than succeeded.

So the reasonable question to ask is whether the decision to use an all-female cast works. Broadly the answer is yes but not with unnecessary problems that seem to have resulted from an attempt to pre-empt questions over the casting decisions.

Rather than establishing the scene briefly at the beginning and returning to it at the end, there are numerous occasions when the audience are forcibly dragged out of the play and back to the prison. Almost without exception these are weaker than Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and are not justified by any attempt to make a coherent link between action in the play and action in the prison.When the play is set free to be itself – fundamentally Julius Caesar being performed by inmates in a women’s prison – then it flows along, and the dynamics of an all-women cast begin to demonstrate some interesting interpretations that may not have been explored through traditional casting. However this is undercut periodically by a desire to justify the contextualisation further than is needed by breaking away from Shakespeare and returning to the background prison setting.

The opening scene implies that Frances Barber’s Caesar returning to Rome runs parallel to the prisoner’s return to prison, and it successfully gels the idea of the dominant leader inside prison and inside the play but other attempts, like when the inmate playing Cinna is replaced by another and then attacked, are quite confusing. Are the audience to make the connection that the bloodlust shown by the prisoners was engendered through the power of Mark Antony’s funeral oration and transferred to the real-world setting of the prison? It is an interesting proposition and not unreasonable given the importance of the power of rhetoric on the play’s action but it is portrayed to the audience with very little clarity.

Against these criticisms it is worth noting that the acting itself was very strong across the cast and genuinely allowed new perspectives on the dynamics of power to be explored. This gives the play an added weight because Shakespeare’s plays have been part of the canon for so long that it is easy to forget that, even with all their depth, they fundamentally encapsulate the ‘great leader’ model of power that struggle to incorporate the great social and democratic upheavals of later centuries.

Lloyd’s casting decisions allow these traditional viewpoints to be explored through a new prism. For instance, it examines the fine line between the fetishizing of a leader for his leadership qualities and the sexual tension that can underpin such dynamics within the leader’s inner circle. A moment when Barber’s Caesar forces a donut into Jenny Jules’ Cassius’ mouth in a display that mixed loyalty with control provided an excellent physical manifestation of this divide.

Ishia Bennison’s Casca demonstrated how it was possible to find a character that works rather than playing it ‘as a man’. Casca was turned into a political gossip – most evident in the scene where Casca reports to Brutus and Cassius on Caesar rejecting the crown – in the style of a no-nonsense northern housewife. This playing allowed a duality that allowed the gossip-mongering to be balanced against someone with a gritty stoicism that would not be worried about talking Caesar into attending the Senate.

Harriet Walter as  Brutus

The plaudits must go to Harriet Walter as Brutus. If ever there was a case for turning a blind eye to gender then Walter provides that justification. It was a superb portrayal that stood head and shoulder above everyone else on the stage. The gravity of the performance, the sense that we were experiencing a person with the weight of a 500-year old Republic resting on their shoulders and the intelligence to understand the philosophical ramifications of that, was electrifying.

In Walter’s Brutus we feel every decision weighed against the cons. Act II.i’s famous monologue where Brutus talks through his decision making, ‘He would be crowned; How might he change his nature, there’s the question…’, is spell-binding theatre. Walter transports the audience as close as they can get to Brutus’ inner-consciousness and we are sold on the idea of thinking of Caesar as a ‘serpent’s egg’ seems entirely reasonable.

The only problem with the quality of Walter’s Brutus is that it unfortunately undermines the power of Mark Anthony’s funeral oration. Cush Jumbo’s Mark Anthony is solid rather than spectacular and the ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’ speech is delivered well, with some excellent uses of gestures that hark back to the importance of rhetoric in speech-making. The use of gesture also interestingly hinted towards its use in modernity as it was reminiscent of the way that Freddy Mercury could control a whole arena with his electrifying stage presence. Jumbo’s Anthony proved capable of controlling the outbursts of the crowd with a simple clenching of the fist until the mob was finally unleashed with the finesse of someone conducting an orchestra.

However, and despite every advantage, Jumbo’s Anthony is unfortunately overwhelmed by the stoic grandeur of Walter’s Brutus. Mark Anthony’s speech is raw, emotion-driven and crowd-pleasing – full of the rabble-rousing references to ‘honourable men’ and the baiting use of Caesar’s ‘Will’. It may have been enough for the crowd but for the audience it proved impossible not to be seduced by the intelligence of the oration and the justification that Brutus provides in ‘…If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.’ [III.ii]

The lighting underpinning this play is also excellent – it can often be the case that the technical accomplishment gets missed behind barnstorming performances but in this case they worked together with a coordination that paid dividends. Being set in a prison, it was inevitably a spartan set-design to work with but the use of ‘watchtowers-style’ spotlights enabled the prison to fade into the background and the actors themselves were framed so that every emotion could be read into their faces

If Julius Caesar is a play as much about rhetoric – the art of persuasion – as anything else then one can judge this as a spirited attempt to make the case for an all-female production. The quality of the performances suggest that there is no reason and potential great benefit to these casting decisions, however it is also clear that it must be done with confidence and never with a backwards glance towards justifying it to your critics. Phylida Lloyd – follow the actions of Casca, Brutus and Cassius and if you do act, do so decisively

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3 thoughts on “Julius Caesar

  1. I bought tickets for this production, partly because of the cast and partly because I don’t think I’ve seen a bad production at the Donmar. I went to see it with some trepidation, not only because I’d bought a ticket for someone as a Christmas present, and I really wanted him to enjoy it too, but because I was sceptical about the ‘all-female’ marketing. I’m never wholly convinced that these rather gimmicky productions can ever be more than just that – a gimmick with some good PR. I saw the all-male Twelfth Night (loved it – worked, of course, v well with the Viola/Cesario/Sebastian roles) and the all-male Richard III (added nothing at all to the production – which was saved by Mark Rylance’s brilliance) and wondered whether Phylida Lloyd had simply leaped on this particular bandwagon. I was immensely pleased to be proven wrong.

    I absolutely agree with the comments in the review about Harriet Walter – she was truly breathtaking and gave a weight and depth to Brutus that I don’t remember ever having seen before. But I very much disagree with the ‘solid rather than spectacular’ comment about Cush Jumbo. She did a great deal more than hold her own against Harriet Walter and Frances Barber – two extraordinarily charismatic actresses (sorry, but I’m not describing them as actors…), both of whom it is hard to look away from when they are on stage. But I wanted to look at Cush Jumbo all the time, not least because she was so amazingly sexy as Anthony.

    ‘Ishia Bennison’s Casca demonstrated how it was possible to find a character that works rather than playing it ‘as a man’.’ …hmm. I didn’t think any of them played it ‘as a man’. Which was one of the reasons it worked for me – once the play began – rather beautifully going straight into the Brutus and Cassius speech in Scene II – I was watching Julius Caesar. Not watching ‘Julius-Caesar-performed-by-an-all-female-cast’.

    I thought, too, that Jenny Jules’ Cassius merited a commendation – the depth that she gave the character and her fabulous diction and emphasis that she gave to her lines made her stand out for me in a cast filled with pretty exceptional performances.

    ‘there are numerous occasions when the audience are forcibly dragged out of the play and back to the prison.’ – beautifully put. ‘Dragged’ is exactly how it felt. But I didn’t think that was a negative – but was, rather, a neat way to underline the control of the women in the prison in the same way that Caesar wanted to control Rome. It also forcibly reminded me that we were watching a play within a play, which I had forgotten because the performances were so engrossing.

    I know this sounds as though I’m being paid to be incredibly positive – not that there is any need, as the pocket-handkerchief Donmar almost always means it is sold out – but I was so sceptical about this play that I am still pretty much reeling from how wrong I was. And I never like being wrong.

    We sat in the front row – right beside the cast – so near that I could have reached out and touched Harriet Walters’ arm – except that, at the time, I was watching Brutus, not Harriet.

    • Thanks for the comments. Its always nice to hear from people who have actually been thinking about the play rather than approaching it as another one to tick off the list. Casting choices have never been an issue for me – gender, ethnicity or any other considerations – are pretty much at the bottom of my list of concerns (although having said that, if I was confronted with a ‘blackface’ Othello then I might struggle). The reason why I was uninterested in the all-male Twelfth Night and Richard III is that I have a number of problems with Malvolio’s treatment in Twelfth Night and, well, you can’t see everything!
      To be honest there was little bad about any of the performances and Cassius was excellent and more space would have merited more of a mention. Cush Jumbo for me was unfortunate more than anything else – I don’t doubt that she is excellent but when you come across a performance as powerful as Walter’s its about finding the way to balance it out and the way I found Mark Anthony portrayed meant that the richness was somewhat diminished in the context of Walter’s Brutus.
      It reminded me of the astounding performance of Othello by Chiwitel Ejiofor a few years back at the Donmar. That was a hurricane of a performance and Ewan Mcgregor’s Iago risked being totally lost in the maelstrom, however he managed to find a quietness that created a harmony on stage and it was actually through the underplaying that he found the character’s strength – a beautiful and totally unexpected portrayal of Iago. Whilst I think it would have been difficult to take the same approach to Mark Anthony – the point for me is that it is about balance and the balance, for me, was not quite there.
      However I am glad to hear that you found it worked for you. And also I think it is interesting to have been sat in the front row. The rake, or lack thereof, of the seats means that the front row is so much more ‘in’ the action than other rows that I expect it does changes the perspective of the performance.

  2. Didn’t see the Othello you mention (another one ruined by supposed ‘study’ – A level that time. I would have loved to have seen Euan McGregor’s Iago. I have to say it is a part I would give almost anything to play myself. I’ve seen a blacked-up Othello and it was toe-curling. But, admittedly, that was in about 1860.
    I loved parts of the Michael Sheen Hamlet, but one thing that just did not work for me was the female Horatio. Not that she was bad, but that I just didn’t see what she added. I saw the Matthew McFadyen/Michael Gambon Henry IV at the National with David Harewood as Hotspur, with a white Earl of Northumberland, and didn’t blink. Except to think that David Harewood was the best thing on stage. And I so fancied Matthew McFadyen. It was v disappointing from that point of view.
    Where you are seated generally doesn’t matter, but in a space the size of the Donmar – a bit like the studio in the Young Vic – it really does. I had one of those odd moments in Julius Caesar, thinking how artificial it all is, and what would happen if I caught Brutus by the sleeve and interrupted the action. But, just the fact that I thought of her as Brutus pulled me up short. One of the best things – and I’ve seen done good stuff – I’ve seen in the past year.

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