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A CurtainUp London Review
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!
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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