“There is a tide in the affairs of men”
In a year when the Globe has gathered an all-male ensemble which has now made its way to the West End and Propeller continue their innovative range of productions, it perhaps apt that Phyllida Lloyd has turned to an all-female cast for her take on Julius Caesar for the Donmar Warehouse. The overarching conceit that she has adopted, and it is one that the production wears heavily at times, is that it is a play within a play, put on by inmates in a women’s prison, aided and abetted by wardens (or are they?) and so the power struggles within the jail population come to be replicated and challenged in the political struggles within the text.
Perhaps as it should be, the most striking moments come from acting choices that have nothing to do with gender. A bluntly vicious Caesar, Frances Barber’s hoarsely croaked out “et tu…” is devastatingly affecting after the assassination is carried out in a rather unexpected manner and Cush Jumbo’s delivery of “Friends, Romans, countrymen…” is spun completely on its head as it opens under the most violent of circumstances, her Mark Antony is superbly played. And Jenny Jules and Harriet Walter as Cassius and Brutus are both blessed with the kind of emotive verse-speaking that breathes real life and explanatory motive between the text and the interpretation.
Which makes it a little frustrating that Lloyd doesn’t trust the production to wear the concept lightly and instead forces it with constant (and unnecessary) reminders that we’re in a prison – summons on the intercom, inmates interrupting scenes with their brawling and laughing, it all simply hammers home a point that doesn’t need it. Bunny Christie’s stripped-back design of grey functionality continues the exploration of the space of the Donmar that has marked Rourke’s reign but whilst the introduction of plastic chairs downstairs is a neat touch, the shape of the seats is somewhat punishing on the lower back.
An ensemble that includes ex-inmates from Clean Break is a clever stroke, the ever-increasingly use of rock music less so. And if the meaningless images on the CCTV screens frustrated me a little, I rather liked the sparing use of hand-held cameras to show shaky real-time versions of key events, lending an uncertainty to proceedings depending on perspective. Ultimately, this is symptomatic of this production as a whole: superbly acted and full of brilliant ideas yet unduly burdened by the weight of its concept. It still remains a visceral piece of theatre though and one which will hopefully add another crack to that pesky glass ceiling.