Sunday, October 27, 2013

Review: Julius Caesar (St. Ann's Warehouse/Donmar Theatre)

"Think you I am no stronger than my sex?"
asks Brutus' wife ironically
in an all-female Julius Caesar
Phyllida Lloyd, working with the Donmar Theatre, has cast Julius Caesar entirely with women, and justifies this casting (as if she needed to!) by setting the play in a women’s penitentiary. Her vision contains a beautiful irony: that Brutus and his fellows conspire to live freely though they’re incarcerated. Her Rome is Darwinistic, with its embodiment Caesar at the apex of the hierarchy. But it’s inaccurate to say that in Lloyd’s staging, Rome’s a prison. After Caesar’s assassination, he continues to lurk about the stage; then some of the convicts break character; finally, as Octavius assumes power, “Caesar” stops the show, pulls out her warden’s cap, and orders the prisoners back to their cells. The whole show has actually been a cruel prison game. The inmates can play at killing Caesar, but only as a lesson that they can’t escape what he represents—absolute authority.

Lloyd’s concept could work just as well with an all-male cast, of course. But the women’s prison has an alienating quality that a men’s prison wouldn’t. The artifice of masculinity that most of these women adopt (think Snoop on The Wire) undermines the Roman and Elizabethan definitions of manhood that our culture still presumes are natural. Plus, it gives some incredible actors the chance to play juicy roles that would conventionally be denied to them.

Harriet Walter plays Brutus,
and Brutus is an honorable woman
Harriet Walter, who ruled Broadway as Queen Elizabeth in Lloyd's Mary Stuart a few years ago, navigates smartly her character’s early monologues. Shakespeare’s Brutus uses pretty specious logic to convince himself of Caesar’s ambition; Walter turns this into a tragic lack of self-knowledge, as her Brutus recognize that he’s duping himself. She and Lloyd lean hard on Brutus’ claims of Justice to defend the assassination, another irony given the setting.

Frances Barber outdoes her and everyone as Caesar (she played the eye-patched baby-napper on Doctor Who); she's an electrifying, bullying ranter with a muscular plug of a body and a great swaggering entrance. But then every performance here uncovers facets of the characters that rarely get explored, like Antony’s arc of growth from callow lieutenant to Caesar’s true heir, or Cassius’s kingmaker maneuvering. In the latter role, Jenny Jules has great chemistry with Walter, especially in those lovely late scenes of argument and camaraderie.

Frances Barber plays a particularly
thuggish Caesar
Like many British directors of Shakespeare (but not most American ones), Lloyd reads her play carefully and thinks out every moment. Her show opens before the play itself, with a lecture from the guards as the audience waves our tickets like security passes. Searchlights are used as spotlights, with the crew dressed in guards’ uniforms. That and the large dark warehouse space gives a real sense of conspiracy to the opening scenes. The music doesn’t really fit with the show’s concept—the soothsayer gets accompanied by a calliope organ; a punk guitar’s thrashing underscores the civil war/prison riot—but it’s appropriate to Shakespeare’s Rome. Like most productions of Julius Caesar, Lloyd doesn’t quite fulfill the play’s tragic aims. Unlike most, it does offers several stunning theatrical coups instead, climaxing with that hammer-blow of an ending.

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