Julius Caesar is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, and this all-female production at the Donmar Warehouse certainly did it justice. Set in a women’s prison, in which the inmates become caught up in their production of Shakespeare’s play, it echoed the power struggles within the prison itself and offered new perspectives on the play.
The auditorium, designed by Bunny Christie, was laid out like the interior of a prison, with guards patrolling walkways up above and grey walls, sparse furnishings and CCTV screens down below. The audience sat on grey plastic chairs, not the most comfortable seats but appropriate to the nature of this production.
Caesar (Frances Barber) is a bully with charisma, ‘top dog’ in the prison and resented by Cassius (Jenny Jules). Assisted by the other rebels, Cassius persuades Brutus (Harriet Walter) to join in with the plot to kill Caesar. What happens next is well-known.
This well-paced production was cut down to two hours without an interval; despite the uncomfortable seats, the time fled by. The ensemble was full of energy, whether engaging in prison banter or storming the Senate, and the performances were brilliant, particularly from Walter and Jules as the chief conspirators, while Cush Jumbo made a quietly compelling Mark Antony, and Clare Dunne made an impression as both pleading Portia and ambitious Octavius Caesar.
I was a little confused at first by the constant references to “he”, although the actors were clearly women, but this was cleared up at the first interruption of a prison guard, emphasising the play-within-a-play nature of Phyllida Lloyd’s production. The interruptions were not overdone and didn’t detract from the main action, but they allowed the play to take its course without rewriting or otherwise changing the text.
I loved this bold, radical interpretation of the play, but the image which will stay with me the longest will be the closing scene: as the prisoners are herded into the cells, Walter’s prisoner character remains behind, visibly overcome at the fate of her character, Brutus, “the noblest Roman of them all”.