A review by Pauline Flannery for EXTRA! EXTRA!

 

 

 

Julius Caesar

 

William Shakespeare

 

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

 

 

Donmar Warehouse

 
30 November 2012 – 9 January 2013


 

 

In 1599, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar reputedly opened the new Globe Theatre. Elizabeth I was sixty-five years old and England, in a quandary over her successor,lived under the threat of Civil War. The stuff of the play –Caesar’s triumphalism leading to his assassination in 44BC and the conspirators’ subsequent downfall, is a preoccupation resonant in both periods, while fate and freedom form a thematic, universal backdrop. Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female version of the play at the Donmar Warehouse, set in a women’s prison, offers a mirror to division, allegiance and the rage of a fickle mob.


‘Beware the ides of March,’ cries the soothsayer, Carrie Rock, a damaged being who clutches a doll, rides a child’s bike and wanders naked, a disorientated soul, as the conspirators’ cause disintegrates. The action is fuel-tensioned from the beginning. Caesar, Frances Barber, is top dog. He scorns his horoscope, the first of many portents which are misread in the play. Barber’s portrayal is ugly, yet brave - at one point she stuffs a doughnut into the mouth of Cassius, another, sings karaoke, is loud, brash, hard and bullying. Later the character transmogrifies into one of the prison warders.


This world is grey and unforgiving, with four-way TV monitors, strip lighting and distempered walls, evocatively realised by Bunny Christie’s designs, while the audience sit on grey, institutional, plastic chairs. We are here to witness the play. In this respect, Lloyd’s production is a complementary piece to Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good, in which convicts prove theatre’s redemptive possibilities. In Julius Caesar the prison concept is at its’ most powerful when the prisoner, Brutus exits at the end.


The convention offers moments of bathos and humour too, as when Brutus kisses his wife Calpurnia and there are titters from behind a canvas screen, which serious-minded character Brutus denounces in a series of expletives. At the other end of the scale, the warders stop the action, as the killing of the innocent poet Cinna threatens to get out of hand. Yet there are moments when the concept feels over-stretched. The utility of red industrial gloves to denote the conspirators’ guilt, the mob’s Caesar masks and use of toy guns seem at odds with the aesthetic which uses screens to show Caesar and Mark Antony’s addresses.


Yet the acting company are uniformly strong, led by superlative Harriet Walter as Brutus. From the beginning she captures Brutus’ internal struggle: to serve Rome nobly, to be ‘a sacrificer not a butcher.’ The scenes between Brutus and Cassius, Jenny Jules, are thrilling in energy and supremacy. While Cush Jumbo’s politically expedient and silver-tongued Mark Antony convinces with a Jamaican flavour of old rum. In fact the ethnically diverse accents add not just to the prison location but the rhythm and musicality in Shakespeare’s lines also. This offers interesting juxtapositions such as Clare Dunne’s impassioned Portia and ruthless Octavius.


The set pieces are visually striking, particularly the ensemble’s tribal movement - Ann Yee, aided by live sound-score, Gary Yershon, of drum and guitar dissonance (think Siouxsie and the Banshees) and Neil Austin’s un-nerving lighting. Both reach a thrilling climax in the battle camps of Brutus and Cassius. Julius Caesar remains a political tale. Yet politics lies at the heart of man himself, shown with such clarity through an ennobled prisoner and female cast in one of Shakespeare’s most masculine of plays.

 

 

Donmar Warehouse
41 Earlham Street
Seven Dials
London WC2H 9LX
Mon – Sat 7.30 Thurs – Sat Mats 2.30
Tickets £10 - £27.50


http://www.donmarwarehouse.com/

Box Office: 0844 871 7624

 
 
 

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