Theatre review: Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy - Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar - Donmar Warehouse, 2016

Donmar Warehouse
Written by William Shakespeare
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Cast: Harriet Walter, Jackie Clune, Jade Anouka, Martina Laird, Clare Dunne, Karen Dunbar

Opus Arte DVD

Phyllida Lloyd cites a number of reasons for choosing to set Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in a women's prison. Evidently there's a desire to 'translate' a Roman history into a modern situation that makes it easier to relate to its themes, and there is some measure of social or community outreach involved in bringing together actors and audiences who might otherwise be wary of Shakespeare, but there's undoubtedly more to it than that. And most evidently, it means that the play features an all-female cast, the first of three in a Shakespeare Trilogy that Lloyd developed for the Donmar Warehouse.

Julius Caesar is indeed one of the playwright's most masculine power plays, and bringing it to life in a contemporary setting with a female cast alone is a strong enough basis for the project, not least for the opportunity it presents in letting female actors have a more prominent role than they would normally have in this particular Shakespeare play. There are other advantages that can be gained from this approach, but in practice the most interesting turns out to be giving Harriet Walter the chance to play Brutus.

If there's one thing that leaps off the screen in this filmed recording of the live theatre performance, it's how Walter's presence and performance as Brutus is far removed from the traditional interpretation, a role notwithstanding that has a fairly wide range of options. Regardless of how you view the other conspirators who plot to murder Caesar, Brutus has a more ambiguous role to play, whether as a political agitator or the strong arm of military might opposing what he believes to be political opportunism on the part of Caesar.

What often gets lost in those extremes is the conflicted side of Brutus's genuine love for Caesar as a dear friend and colleague, someone close to himself in nature and ambition. Does Brutus really fear the ambition he sees in Rome's ruler or is it his own ambition that he recognises in Caesar when he decides to kill him? There's a complex relationship there and between Lloyd and Walter and setting this in a women's prison, the Donmar production does succeed in bringing this out much more effectively than a more traditional masculine reading.

Does setting this in a women's prison achieve anything more than this? Well actually yes. It's a location where the potential for violence lies just beneath the surface, where it's important to maintain a public face of strength and show no weakness, where gangs hold influence over rank and power. It's a closed community, much like any parliamentary seat, where tensions can quickly boil over and it's important to come out as top dog. It's not a perfect match for the text evidently, any more than any other ambitious reinterpretation of a Shakespeare play, but it does touch on the essence of what the play is about and bring out new aspects.

That also involves a few changes and additions to the text, which most people would be happy enough to accept as long as they aren't extensive and don't distort Shakespeare's verse. It's a little worrying when the opening scene is prefaced with this production's Cassius explaining the community theatre side of things which, along with one or two meta-theatrical interruptions, creates a kind of framework that sets the play within a prison production of the play. Or perhaps a production that raises nascent tensions within the prison and rapidly gets out of hand until the warders pull the plug over the protests of the prisoners, which means that there are a few outbursts of modern vernacular in the production.

Essentially however it's still Shakespeare's text that has the greater role and impact. There are cuts introduced to bring it down to 2 hours, most notably Brutus's speech being largely truncated to soundbites (a reflection of the times we live in?), but it has to be said that it's a fascinating reading of the work that does place the characters in a very different light. Lloyd does well to give each of the roles distinct personalities (and differing regional accents help), and this has the effect of changing the dynamic of interaction between them. Harriet Walter's Brutus is pivotal here, not just in how this qualifies his/her relationship with Jackie Clune's Caesar or Martina Laird's Cassius, but significantly with Clare Dunne's fierce Portia, who morphs later quite alarmingly in her dual-role into Octavius Caesar.

There's a lot to reconsider there, and the intimacy of the prison yard set (recreated in the round at King's Cross in 2016 for the live film recording) really enhances the intensity of those performances. The production seethes with repressed violence, the augurs are shown as nightmarish visions, which alongside Caesars ghost and Portia's ghost also here, the subsequent military campaign after Caesar's death and the speeches descend into almost into an abstraction of madness, underscored by a rock drummer and loud guitar. It's utterly electrifying, occasionally frustrating and annoying, but by closing down the momentous history drama to focus on the human drama in a contained smaller scale environment, Phyllida Lloyd's production does seem to capture some of the political and populist heat of the moment in a very human way.

The first Phyllida Lloyd's trilogy of all-female Shakespeare productions at the Donmar (alongside Henry IV and The Tempest), the filmed version of Julius Caesar is released on DVD by Opus Arte. The DVD is in NTSC format and region-free for worldwide distribution and compatibility, and it looks and sounds impressive, the image clear and well-lit, with Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 sound options. There are a good selection of extra features that cover the intentions and approach to the play with contributions from Phyllida Lloyd and the actors. There's also a full-length director's commentary and a booklet with an introduction by Phyllida Lloyd, a synopsis and a look at Roman history of this period by Robert Harris.

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