tue 26/08/2014

Julius Caesar, Donmar Warehouse | Theatre reviews, news & interviews

Julius Caesar, Donmar Warehouse

An all-female cast doesn't lack for testosterone in this giddying rewrite

Brutus (Harriet Walter) comes to terms with her vow to be a "sacrificer but not a butcher"Helen Maybanks

There’s no ignoring gender in Julius Caesar. Whether it’s Portia’s “I grant I am a woman” speech, an enfeebled Caesar likened to a “sick girl”, or Cassius raging against oppression – “our yoke and sufferance make us womanish” – the issue is written into the language and ideological fabric of the play. So all those who might be tempted to rage against the travesty of Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female production for the Donmar should take their complaints directly to Shakespeare’s door.

Wherever there is political tyranny there are inevitably the silenced, the disenfranchised, so it seems only natural that a play like Julius Caesar should attract not one but two viable readings from the margin this year. Back in the summer the RSC gave us an all-black production set in Africa, and now Lloyd relocates the work to a female prison. Even English National Opera’s recent Giulio Cesare featured some unexpected gender-bending with the vengeful young Sesto transformed inexplicably from boy to girl.

Walter achieves a strikingly masculine presence

The coincidence has caused some discussion, with the Donmar’s Artistic Director Josie Rourke quoted as saying: “If you are a white male, you stand the least possible chance of being cast as Julius Caesar this year.” And we laugh, but not without remembering that Tim Carroll’s two all-male Shakespeares (not to mention the regular work of all-male company Propeller) have gone by this year largely unremarked in gender debates.

A veteran of turning the tables, Lloyd has already explored the disjunctive cross-casting phenomenon in her all-female The Taming of the Shrew at the Globe in 2003. Her public rationale is primarily a practical one – redressing the balance that gives women (and particularly those over 40) far fewer character roles than men in classical theatre. Pragmatic in philosophy, in practice it’s an approach that yields some exhilarating results.

Bunny Christie’s set rips open the womb-like Donmar space, returning it almost to the warehouse that gives the theatre its name. Paint peels, institutional clutter lines the corrugated walls, metal walkways circle upwards, and always the CCTV cameras and searchlights observe. In this environment, unsoftened by so much as a cushion or a curtain, Gary Yershon’s amplified rock soundtrack echoes and re-echoes, assaulting us as we share this dismal space with the grey-tracksuited ranks of prisoners.

Lloyd’s cast certainly give the lie to any weakly girlish image of the female. Strong and vigorous to a (wo)man the large cast riot over the set, wielding words and guns with equally persuasive conviction. Jenny Jules’s Cassius is all tightly-strung passion rather than a calculated schemer, and Clare Dunne’s Octavius Caesar is a disturbingly dominant force in the latter scenes. Only Cush Jumbo’s Mark Antony disappoints, turning the volume down too far on this master manipulator in the context of so loudly demonstrative a production.

The tone is set by Frances Barber’s Caesar. Sporting a black beret and trench-coat that could place her in any 20th century conflict from the Balkans to Burkina Faso, her general is a genial psychopath, whose smiles pierce more deeply than her razor blade, who can transform a doughnut into an object of torture, a contested territory of power. Lingering on after death to direct the unfolding tragedy, Barber’s presence is pervasive even in silence, and her sprung physicality a foil to Harriet Walter’s rangy Brutus.

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