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.
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.
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