Julius Caesar. It’s a great play about honourable men. And yet in the Donmar Warehouse the play is currently being performed by an all female cast. Director Phyllida Lloyd returns to the stage to present a production of a Shakespeare classic in what appears to be an entirely appropriate context. In many ways though this production is a paradox. It is a play made up of excellent performances and it delivers the the famous Shakespeare speeches brilliantly and yet, however it does not satisfy because fundamentally it does not address what it arguably should be aiming to - the main drive of the production - the women.
For an all female cast, there are no female characters. We get a heart-breaking performance of Brutus (Harriet Walter) but we don’t get to see who she is at all, this woman beneath the Shakespearean eloquence. Equally Mark Anthony (Cush Jumbo) is as electrifying as ever at Caesar’s funeral, but who is she? The Cassius we see (Jenny Jules) is a wronged man but we do not see a wronged woman? We do not meet any of the women who we are watching on stage. This production of Julius Caesar is presented with minimal editing - not even the pro-nouns are changed (so there isn’t anything interesting going on in reclaiming an language for people who are denied it). We have “such men” the threat of Caesar becoming a king, above men and men going to war. But where were the women?
Actually, nowhere in the program notes does it mention a writer or dramaturg - it appears the entire construct of the women’s prison is just that. A directorial decision to justify the casting. Metatheatre is a wonderful but dangerous muse - it has to be used with care and consideration or it can be reduced to a gimmick. At minimum there should have been a break away from the ‘performance inside the performance’ during the first half. The internal logic of this world really needed to be established before a new world was created. I was waiting for these women to interact with the play. To question it; to feel it; to become consumed by it and for it to demonstrate something about their lives and experience. As it was there was a strange distancing effect of the Shakespeare words existing in a vacuum and floating above the setting.
What this play needed was more. It needed to become more than just Julius Ceasar by William Shakespeare. We needed to have established power relationships between the prisoners; we needed to know who was due for release soon; we needed to know why X had been cast as Brutus but Y was annoyed at playing his wife. Why Julius Ceasar? How into a world of women does a play about the world of men fit?
Thanks to Bunny Christie’s great set design at no point are we under the illusion that we are anywhere other than a female prison. We are so immersed in this world, even the theatre techs operating overhead are dressed as prison guards (one had a moustache!) and yet we are not given access to this. It doesn’t hold a mirror to the action, it doesn’t complement the action - it is reduced almost to a container for the action and little more. The sound design (Tom Gibbons) and lighting (Neil Austin) are also great but again disconnected and again the rawness of this energy needed to be grounded in the ‘real world of the prison’ as well as on the battlefields of Ancient Rome for it to be fully taken advantage of.
The only period where both worlds fully connect and make sense is the bookended scene where Cinna the Poet is lynched. By the time the flow of the Shakespeare is interrupted it is a relief but also doesn’t quite sit properly - and it becomes a little uncomfortable. Because the internal logic of the performance had not been fully established, it doesn’t sit right.
If the intended effect of this production was only to demonstrate that women can perform Shakespeare then it is successful. But the thing is, we know that. It might not be common to have all female casts but it does happen. Last year I saw an all female student production of Twelfth Night - again this was used in the marketing of the show, it was pitched as an exciting gender explorative performance. It wasn’t. What it was, was an enjoyable and well performed piece of Shakespeare but it could have been a mixed cast, an all male cast or all female and it wouldn’t have made any difference. The same could be said for this production. The female performers were all good but it didn’t mean anything beyond the play. This may have been a less of an issue if it hadn’t been set in a female prison where the power dynamics and hierarchies are an ideal space for drawing out the themes/ relationships and power of the Shakespeare. I feel it is good for theatre makers to justify why. To think hard about the implications of a particular setting and casting decision, to work with the politics of this and use them in the work.
Reception studies is the academic discourse around the contemporary productions of classical texts.There tends to be a preciousness about classical texts, perhaps people are afraid of tampering with audience expectations, of drawing criticism for embellishment, however if done properly with respect and an assured awareness of the original re-contextualising a classical work can be very rewarding. The key principle of bringing a classical work into a contemporary context is to use the new and working with the existing text create dynamic relationship between the two elements.
As an example I turn to Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona’s The Island. For not only is it an excellent example of post-colonial theatre but it is an successful re-working of Sophocles’ Antigone and one of our best examples of how metatheatre can work. Two cellmates in Robben Island perform Antigone, but in using their own story and experience there are layers to this work beyond the original text. John and Winston take the audience on a journey of personal discovery and provide a completely unique reading and understanding of the original play as well as reflecting on the horrors of Apartheid and the contemporary context of the characters.
People who might have argued Greek Tragedy has no place in South Africa might also make the case that Julius Caesar has no place in a female prison - but unlike The Island, this production doesn't present the case that it does.
In fairness there are many productions of Shakespeare (including Julius Caesar) that play with the context little and also only use the play as it is. However productions such as that of the RSC recently that displaces Julius Caesar from Italy to Africa don’t have the conceit of people performing the Shakespeare play - it just is. Perhaps if the Donmar production was Julius Caesar actually playing out and happening within a women’s prison it might be different, but as is they are characters clearly performing it. The problem is we don’t know who. Or why. Or how. Or when. We are only given the what - and that is brilliant but I would argue not enough.
I think it says much of my experience of this production that I came out of theatre wanting to write it. For me the real play and the real story just wasn’t there. Just think how much more could have underlined the already impressive performances. Julius Caesar. It’s a great play about honourable men. And yet it could have been ever so much more about women.