An all-female Julius Caesar? Now that’s more like it! I am so over all of Shakespeare’s plays being a massive boys club. It’s just not fair on his brilliantly complex women, as no one ever makes a fuss over them. It is the men who always take the stage in his work, so Phyllida Lloyd’s choice to present the cock-fest of Julius Caesar with not a drop of male blood in it was a perfect idea. No seriously, it really was.
I walked into the Donmar warehouse and was immediately transformed to what seemed like a conspiracy den in the Second World War. A few military hats and uniforms were subtly visible on hooks around the auditorium, which could have easily been mistaken for belonging to the audience members. If it wasn’t for the random magazine, and a bottle of Ribena sitting on a shelf on stage, I would have guessed it was a WW2 version of Julius Caesar. I’m really glad I was right in thinking it was not, because I have seen far too many of those war epics.
Admittedly, when it started, I was slightly confused about what I was actually watching. I just assumed this was a Julius Caesar set in a female prison, and so exploring gang culture in prisons, such as leaders of groups fighting each other to gain full control of their inmates, and also the power struggles between the guards and the law, and prisoners. I was not that wrong, as this could be one way to interpret the performance. What is right, however, is that the play is like a play within a play, which is not very clear until Brecht’s ‘let’s all break the fourth wall’ technique is brought in. The play is set in a female prison, yes, but we as the audience are watching the female prisoners perform Julius Caesar.
The female prison concept, I think, is genius. Lloyd makes her actors explore Shakespeare’s men through the minds of women who have committed crimes, creating brilliant moments in the piece. For example, when her fellow inmates start to snicker and giggle behind a sheet on stage, Harriet Walter’s character, who is playing Brutus, gets really angry at them, swearing and shouting for them to stop, so she can carry on with the scene. As well as this, the prison environment brings out several authentic elements to the piece, such as the CCTV cameras which look pretty cool, and the way Caesar is murdered. Frances Barber (Caesar) is stabbed with plastic knives, and made to swallow bleach, which yeah is brutal, but I guess pretty common in prison.
The ensemble work great together. Brutus and Cassius (Jenny Jules) make a great team, who complement each other and their strong friendship is very clear on stage. The relationship between Antony (Cush Jumbo) and Caesar is very sexual from the beginning of the piece, which also brings to light the homoeroticism hidden (perhaps not very well?) in Shakespeare’s work. Overall, Lloyd definitely puts the girl power in Shakespeare by creating a very enjoyable and thought-provoking Julius Caesar that even Pussy Riot would be proud of.