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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
JULIUS CAESAR
at the Donmar

PRISON CULTURE
By CLAIRE ALLFREE

  Charlotte Josephine and Harriet Walter/ Ph: Helen Maybanks

The set is the first surprise. The bijou confines of the Donmar are transformed into a cavernous interior in Bunny Christie’s stripped-to-the-wall design, with the usual padded rows of seats swapped for grey, institutional plastic chairs. We’re inside a women’s jail, and the inmates – dressed in lumpy grey tracksuits – are putting on a production of Julius Caesar. Surveillance cameras pivot from high above and bleached strip lighting bears down. It’s chilly, foreboding and just a little bit threatening.
 
Phyllida Lloyd’s high-concept, all-female Julius Caesar follows in the footsteps of other recent all-male Shakespeares (and Greg Doran’s all-black Julius Caesar for the RSC), but in truth is defined by something much more radical than single gender casting. From the first couple of scenes, as the soothsayer – nursing a baby – tries to warn Frances Barber’s thuggish Caesar about the Ides of March using a copy of Heat magazine, this production thrives on a dangerous, combustible and sometimes nightmarish energy. Lloyd’s framing device – which means prison officers occasionally interrupt the "action" (when the lynching of Cinna threatens to get out of hand, for example, or when Carrie Rock’s clearly damaged Soothsayer becomes too mad even for this toughened crew) – compounds the exhilarating sense that the play is both the thing, and also nothing. It’s both a liberating parallel narrative of insurrection and, with Barber doubling up as a prison officer, a taunting reminder of their incarceration.
 
Yet Lloyd’s production wouldn’t amount to a hill of pretentious beans if the acting wasn’t top notch. Barber riskily plays Caesar as a psychotic thug, forcing a doughnut down the throat of Jenny Jules’ Cassius in a particularly mindless display of cruelty, yet her performance taps into the way the powerful can so easily appear monstrous to the powerless. Far more subtle, nonetheless, are the triumvirate of performances that surround her. Harriet Walter’s Brutus is an intoxicating figure – hair slicked back, cheeks sunken, figure gaunt, her every physical gesture weighted down with the almost unbearable complexity of Brutus’ position. Cush Jumbo is a deliciously slippery Mark Antony, and a thrillingly charismatic performer, while Jules finds a heart-burning passion in the real-politicking Cassius. There’s excellent work too from Clare Dunne, who effortlessly doubles up as a pregnant Portia and a pugilistic Octavius (and whose final effortless triumph over Mark Antony neatly encapsulates the easy exchange of power allegiances within gang cultures). Furthermore, two graduates of Clean Break’s Access to Theatre programme for ex-offenders bring a toughness and rawness rarely seen in the theatre – Rock’s eerie Soothsayer and Jen Joseph’s mob-happy Trebonius,
 
Lloyd’s approach undeniably makes sacrifices. This great play about civic politics here has virtually nothing to say about public power, with the murder of Caesar (which takes place with the help of a bottle of bleach within the stalls) the only moment that even remotely implicates the audience. Instead the production feels completely wrapped up within its own context – the curious codes and hierarchies of prison culture, and at times, the rituals and distinct ugliness of female gangs. Nor does Lloyd have much of a feminist drum to bang, beyond, perhaps, the obvious point that women can convey violence just as convincingly as men. In a play so determinedly about masculinity, Lloyd’s raw, rough, at times brilliantly unhinged production ultimately confirms that when it comes to gender, at least, the play really is the thing.

 


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