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Friends, Romans, Countrywomen

 

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 24.0473  Thursday, 10 October 2013

 

From:        Hardy M. Cook < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         Thursday, October 10, 2013

Subject:     Friends, Romans, Countrywomen

 

The all women’s Julius Caesar opened yesterday. This is Ben Brantley’s review of it from The New York Times.

 

http://theater.nytimes.com/2013/10/10/theater/reviews/shakespeares-julius-caesar-by-women-of-donmar-warehouse.html

 

October 9, 2013

Friends, Romans, Countrywomen

By Ben Brantley

 

A woman’s touch has not softened the hard and mighty “Julius Caesar.” On the contrary, the gripping, all-female, London-born production that opened on Wednesday night at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn has a muscular strength and ferocity guaranteed to keep everyone in the theater in sustained fight-or-flight mode.

 

The women playing men here seem poised to challenge the entire audience to put up its dukes — and perhaps to pull out contraband switchblades. For as biologically inapt as it may sound, this interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s most manly tragedies, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, generates a higher testosterone level than any I have seen.

 

Such a marvel of biochemistry has been concocted in an environment fabled by popular myth for turning its inhabitants into thugs, regardless of gender. That would be a high-security prison. Yes, Ms. Lloyd’s “Julius Caesar,” staged at the Donmar Warehouse in London last year, is presented as a bunch of inmates putting on a show.

 

These gals behind bars — who are embodied by a crackling troupe led by the stalwarts of British classical theater Harriet Walter and Frances Barber — are clearly all too familiar with the impulses behind the story they’re telling: the hunger to be top dog and the resentment for those who already rule, the need to band together in territorial tribes and the anger that festers and flares under repression.

 

Small wonder that the otherwise unnoticed guards monitoring the show are occasionally forced to step in and break things up. Doing “Julius Caesar” may be cathartic for its imaginary cast of criminals. But you don’t get the feeling that once the play’s over, they’ll retreat to quiet sleep in their cells. The rivalries and the jealousies and the war making are never going to stop. Which, come to think of it, is also true for those bellicose Romans still standing at the end of “Julius Caesar.”

 

Putting “Julius Caesar” in a penitentiary isn’t entirely new. It was the conceit behind Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s movie “Caesar Must Die” (2011), which was filmed in a prison outside Rome and used inmates as actors. Nor is gender reversal uncommon these days in Shakespearean theater. But there’s something about the combination of casting and setting in Ms. Lloyd’s version that makes her “Julius Caesar” particularly intense and illuminating.

 

For one thing, it sometimes takes a woman to show us what men are truly made of. Just as a skilled drag queen reminds us of the artifice that shapes our images of femininity, women portraying macho men highlight what’s grotesque and confining in traditionally masculine postures. Trapped in a cycle of violence and retribution, the inmate actresses playing the actors in this “Julius Caesar” are prisoners in more ways than one. And you can imagine the writer Jean Genet, who knew from prisons and gender blurring, feasting on the Donmar production.

Not that you’re likely to ponder such academic questions while you’re watching “Julius Caesar.” Ms. Lloyd and her technical team pull us directly into the show’s fraught mise-en-scène even before the play begins. Audience members enter the theater in groups via a no-exit holding pen, where they are marshaled into order by uniformed turnkeys who seem to be in no mood for jokes.

 

Then, lo and behold, you’re in a bleak common room, the sort of place used for supervised recreational activities. (Bunny Christie is the designer, and Neil Austin did the artfully harsh lighting.) Advice against self-mutilation and for coming forward if you are a victim of sexual abuse is conveyed on fraying posters. One of these also admonishes, “No talking while moving.” Fortunately, that dictum will be ignored.

 

For this cast speaks Shakespeare with a fiery fluency that allows you to understand not just every word but every intention behind the words as well. You’re always conscious of how power — both the lust for it and the fear of it — informs the action. And you’re equally, subliminally aware of how what’s happening in that play must channel and reflect what’s happening in the real lives of the prisoners performing it in their regulation gray sweats.

 

At their helm is the butchest of them all, Caesar (Ms. Barber), who leads his followers in fist-pumping musical routines and brandishes a hand mike like a phallus. (Gary Yershon composed the adrenaline-churning music.) This Caesar keeps his Rome as a well-ordered house, but he’s a natural-born bully, too. When he decides that Cassius (Jenny Jules) has a lean and hungry look, he force feeds the poor guy a doughnut, and he’s not above striking his supplicating wife, Calpurnia (Jade Anouka).

 

Ms. Jules is a marvelous, fuming, hissing Cassius, whose obsequious smiles can’t hide his toxic sourness. He and his older fellow conspirator Casca (Susan Brown, also excellent) are clearly chafing under the yoke of servitude. But they know that insurrection must be conducted in shadowy secrecy, or behind the veil of magazines they pretend to read.

 

Mark Antony (played with increasing charisma by Cush Jumbo), on the other hand, is still a sap-filled youth, a fresh-faced hedonist who delights in the boss’s favor. His inner hardened cynic will surface soon enough, though. As for the noble Brutus (Ms. Walter), he tries to justify primal instincts with philosophy, and, boy, does that conflict take its toll. Ms. Walter’s first-rate Brutus has the look of a man consumed by a cancer of indecision, always “with himself at war.”

 

The staging by Ms. Lloyd (along with that of the movement director Ann Yee and the fight director Kate Waters) ingeniously underscores the relative positions of these power players. Watch the literal elevation of Brutus and Mark Antony during their respective funeral orations, in a sequence that tellingly deploys a hoodie-wearing crowd with a restless attention span.

 

This production also makes inspired use of such varied ephemera as red rubber gloves, a trash magazine horoscope, plastic masks with Caesar’s face and a garage band on wheels. Even that tired postmodern Shakespearean device of playing to simulcast video cameras is given invigorating new life here.

 

Most important, though, is that everyone in this production belongs to the same world and speaks the same language, which unfortunately is all too rare with Shakespeare these days. Key to that uniformity is a shared sense that in Shakespeare, the real power lies in language, which also means that in Shakespeare’s male-dominated casts, women seldom have much power.

 

“I have a man’s mind but a woman’s might,” wails Brutus’s wife, Portia, frustrated at being shut out of her husband’s political affairs. How sweet it is, then, that the visibly pregnant actress playing Portia, Clare Dunne, shows up later as Octavius Caesar. This is the guy who turns out to be the play’s ultimate winner. Best of all, in speaking this tragedy’s concluding lines, he — or should I say she? — gets to have the last word.

 
 

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