A CurtainUp Review
All Female Julius Caesar
The All Female Julius Caesar Comes to New York
by Deirdre Donovan
Lizzie Loveridge's review in London
Julius Caesar, nestled between Henry V and As You Like It in Shakespeare's canon, has long been viewed as the most manly of plays. Phyllida Lloyd's all-female production of this Roman play set in a women's prison ingeniously adds a new twist to the testosterone-laden work. Now making its American premiere at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, it is a must-see for Bardolators.
Brutus had rather be a villager
Than to repute himself a son of Rome
Under these hard conditions as this time
Is like to lay upon us.
When my Curtainup colleague, Lizzie Loveridge, reviewed the original production at the Donmar Warehouse in the West End.(Lizzie's Review--below this piece) she gave it an enthusiastic thumbs-up with a "Bravo!" to Lloyd for her strong direction. Lloyd's artistic coups include the film The Iron Lady and former Donmar productions like Mary Stuart, which later transferred to Broadway and garnered her a 2009 Tony Award. She now resurfaces here with the Bard's most sophisticated history play (1599).
A "Rehearsal Diary" aboutthe evolution of Lloyd's Julius Caesar explains that Lloyd "neatly sidestepped" the gender issue by relocating the play from classical Rome to a women's prison. Naturally, all the juicy roles in the dramatis personae would then go to women actresses of a certain age. Not only was this smart thinking on Lloyd's part but it blew the door wide open for other directors to seize the day and discover other plausible ways to cast women in traditionally male roles.
The performance space at St. Ann's is a hand-in-glove fit for this Julius Caesar. Its unvarnished boards serve the prison environment well, and the theater's cushion-less chairs completing the look and feel of an institutional venue. Like the Donmar production, the New York set by Bunny Christie is a monochrome grey, with a balcony level used for mob scenes or to literally heighten pivotal events. Video projections add a multi-media dimension, synchronizing with and enlarging the onstage action. To anchor the prison concept, Christie has built an enclosed guard station beneath one of the balcony areas at stage left, where the wardens sit and relentlessly spy on the "inmates" through a glass window. The guards' raw quips are the equivalent of a glass of ice-cold water tossed in one's face — a sharp contrast to the Bard's high-flown rhetoric spoken silkily by the ensemble.
This staging actually brings new meaning to that theatrical phenomenon called "double-time," a device that operates in all history plays since the actors are re-enacting a historic event that unfolds before an audience in real time. "Double time" occurs in this production in a decidedly novel fashion. Lloyd has essentially created a play-within-a-play here with the guards watching the "inmates" perform a rough-shod version of Julius Caesar — and we, as the off-stage audience, are watching it all from our seats.
Yes, this is a complex production Shakespeare's history play. It pushes the theatrical envelope, and then some.
Many from the original cast are still on board in Brookly the New York production. Those reprising their major roles are Frances Barber as the iconic Caesar, Harriet Walter as the sensitive-souled Brutus, and Jenny Jules inhabiting the politico Cassius. Joining the cast are Susan Brown, as Casca, Meline Danielewicz as Cinna and Volumnnius, and Susan Wokoma as Lucius. All in all, it's a solid ensemble!
Surprisingly, there are only a couple of times during the show that gender becomes "visible." The first time is when Portia (Clare Dunne) complains to her husband Brutus that he is keeping "secrets" from her in Act 2, Scene 1. It happens again in the following scene, when Calpurnia, having had an ominous dream about her husband's well-being, begs Caesar not to go to the Senate as planned that day. But what you chiefly experience is never an all-female ensemble in drag. Dressed in their baggy track suits these are simply 14 performers re-enacting the play's momentous historic events within stark prison walls.
If you think this sounds depressing, it's not. You will be pulled into the action, not only by the superb ensemble acting, but by the heavy metal music (Tom Gibbons)) and the whirr of strobe lights (Kelly Shaffer Allen).
To comment on this New York production at more length would be to repeat what Loveridge has said in her perceptive review. We've therefore re-posted it right below this review (scroll down or click
here). What I would like to add, however, is that this reprisal is a rare opportunity to see a first-rate director's vision of a Shakespeare play. No doubt Lloyd is casting a long shadow on our cultural landscape. Whether it's her films, numerous stage productions at the Donmar Warehouse, ABBA's Mama Mia or her 2003 all-female Taming of the Shrew, she continues to cement her reputation as an artist of diversity and substance.
Current Production Notes
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
Starring: Harriet Walter, Jenny Jules, Frances Barber, Clare Dunne, Cush Jumbo, Susan Brown
With: Jade Anouka, Alice Bell, Helen Cripps, Jen Joseph, Charlotte Josephine, Irene Ketikidi, Carrie Rock, Carolina Valdes, Danielle Ward, Vivienne Acheampong, Helen Cripps, Meline Danielewicz, Irene Ketikidi, Carrie Rock, Danielle Ward, Susan Wokoma
Designed by Bunny Christie
Lighting: Neil Austin
Sound: Tom Gibbons
Composer: Gary Yershon
Movement: Ann Yee
Fight Director: Kate Waters
St. Ann's Warehouse, at 129 Jay Street, DUMBO, Brooklyn
Tickets are $50 to $80. For tickets and more information, visit www.stannswarehouse.org or phone (718) 254-8779; and in person at the St. Ann's Warehouse Box Office at 29 Jay Street in DUMBO, Brooklyn.
From 10/03/13; opening 10/09/13; closing 11/09/13.
Tuesday through Saturday @ 8pm. Sunday @ 7pm. Saturday matinees @ 2pm; Sunday matinees @ 3pm.
Running time: Two hours: 5 minutes with no intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on performance of 10/03/13.
Lizzie Loveridge's Review of the London Production
Phyllida Lloyd’s all female Julius Caesar is set in a women’s prison. Quite why? I have yet to figure out. The only reasoning can be that the cast are themselves prisoners and this is an all female version because the casting base is all female.
Occasionally a cast member will break out of character and vehemently tell those making a background noise to be quiet. So are we watching a play put on by women prisoners? Complicating the issue are two members of the cast from the Clean Break Theatre company, a charity which uses theatre to support women offenders within and without the criminal justice system. Dame Harriet Walter, here playing Brutus, is a patron of Clean Break.
Enough time on this controversial design context, let’s talk about the production. Frances Barber as Julius Caesar dominates the early scenes as her supporters wear a card mask of her face and black beret, creating an anonymous, uniform army hanging on her every word.
Mark Anthony (Cush Jumbo) is not as charismatic as one would wish and in the later scenes, it becomes clear that he and Octavius (Clare Dunne) win the battle because they are so ready with guns to kill opponents. The two main characters for me are the impressive Harriet Walter as Brutus who has an amazing and noble stage presence and Jenny Jules who injects so much interest into the role of Cassius that it is like watching this play for the very first time.
Bullying features to the fore in this production. Cassius’ motivation is explained when Caesar brutalises her by stuffing unwanted food into her mouth, publically humiliating her in front of the other prisoners. The conspirators gather under the guise of darkness and wearing face masks, disguising their identity operate by torchlight. The murder takes place in the midst of the auditorium as a member of the audience is moved to another chair so Caesar can sit there. We see the horror of the murder and on the faces of the audience at close quarters to the deed. A video camera will record everything which will be shown on screens. The conspirators put on bright red gloves to show their involvement with the assassination and the iconic image of the show is one of the conspirators with blood soaked hands held aloft.
Clare Dunne, doubling as Brutus’ wife Portia (and Octavius), will describe her harrowing dreams and cut her thigh in one of the earliest records of self harming, but not yet suicidal, in the theatre. The turmoil of the funeral speeches will see a greedy mob anxious to hear what is in it for them and the cast will criss cross the stage to convey the unrest within the state caused by the death of a strong “would be” emperor.
Bunny Christie’s set is detailed, scruffy, bare painted bricks and battleship grey with the downstairs audience relocated on grey plastic chairs for the two hour run through production. Tea trays and drums provide the noise of a prison near riot.
Not surprisingly this becomes a play less about politics than the abuse of power by an individual through Frances Barber’s power hungry Caesar. Mark Antony starts his famous speech, prostrate on the ground and with a gun pointed at his head. No wonder he has to be diplomatic about Brutus! In a piece of meta-theatricality, Caesar reappears and controls the replaying of the last few minutes of one scene. The battle scenes are exciting staged as on a trolley, with strobe projection, Cassius looks at the battle ground at Philippi. As Brutus is killed the victorious army have their photograph taken with him holding up his dead body for celluloid posterity in the manner of the killing of recent dictators .
Phyllida Lloyd has crafted a thrilling production with her cast of women. Bravo!
The London production played at the Donmar Warehouse and was reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge on 8th December 2012. The cast:
Harriet Walter, Jenny Jules, Frances Barber, Clare Dunne, Cush Jumbo, Ishia Bennison; also Jade Anouka, Alice Bell, Helen Cripps, Jen Joseph, Charlotte Josephine, Irene Ketikidi, Carrie Rock, Carolina Valdes, Danielle Ward