Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar (2013)
dir. Phyllida Lloyd

Last winter, I had the amazing fortune of attending the Experiencing London Theatre trip through Adelphi, and while in London I was able to see the much anticipated production of Julius Caesar performed at the Donmar Warehouse. This production had the interesting directorial and casting choice of only casting women to play every part of the William Shakespeare tragedy. On top of that, this particular adaptation of the play had a sub-narrative element – all the women are prisoners in a women’s penitentiary who are putting on this play and acting out all the male parts. This layering of psychology is what grabbed me and held me through the show: women actors playing women prisoners playing male Romans. And it seems that my good fortune shall continue because I was able to go see the same all-female production of Julius Caesar that has come to Brooklyn’s very own St. Ann’s Warehouse this fall.

But before I get carried away with my reaction to the performances, I’d like to take a second to examine the set and space of the production. In the Donmar, there was no stage proper, but rather just an open space in front of the audience. It was not raised in any way. The seats were just fold out chairs, and the balcony level seating was small wooden bleachers with cast iron bars across them. And along some of the catwalks there were TV monitors with live camera feeds to stairwells and hallways. All in all, the space was a cold block of grey cement – very much like a prison.

I had some trepidation when initially purchasing my ticket for the St. Ann’s Warehouse production (which was much more expensive than the subsidized English performance I might add) because I was not sure how well they would be able to transfer over the feeling the space produced in tandem with the prison set. However, I was very surprised and happy when, before the performance even began, about half the audience was ushered into a small waiting area with video cameras and blank white walls where we were given a mini “debriefing” about theatre protocol by the security guards/ushers. And upon entering the space, the same essence of a “prison performance” was upheld in the general layout of the theatre’s seating, unadorned and cold walls, and rough/used equipment. That immersive quality that the Donmar Warehouse created back in London was completely recreated, and even added to here in St. Ann’s.

From one performance to another, I still found the use of an all-female cast to portray this highly testosterone and masculine driven play the most fascinating part of the show. The most interesting part about the use of the female prisoner was when they would actually break their Shakespearian character and reveal the personality underneath the surface – showing the prisoners behind the characters.

This happens only a few times throughout the production, but each time it is a bit of a shock and makes the audience take a step back and remember that they are watching a play – literally. For instance, in the scene where Cinna the Poet was supposed to give a speech, the “real world” of the prison interrupted the performance and had the woman playing Cinna (Carolina Valdes) called off to take her meds. This left a gap open in the show, but Caesar (Frances Barber) very gently dismissed the original Cinna and had another prisoner (Helen Cripps) take her place. Another notable moment was when Brutus (Harriet Walter) broke character during one of her speeches to yell at her cast mates for giggling behind a curtain while she performed. However, the second time around, I found that they only just began to scratch the surface of the psychology brought out through by breaking character. The breaking of character comes much too late in the performance and as a result comes off as slightly gimmicky.

This adaptation, though negatively received by some critics, was a success in my mind because it made me give pause to many of the themes of Julius Caesar: loyalty, tyranny, mob mentality, gender expectations, and justifiable crimes. Though I found the breaking of characters slightly more showy/gimmicky than I did the first time around, I still felt that it was a clever way of reading the play and presenting it to an audience.  (R. Sobeck, October 2013)

Julius Caesar  (2012)
dir. Gregory Doran

The RSC’s African Julius Caesar finally rolled into town, and as my Shakespeare birthday treat, I booked myself a ticket.  The production is set in an unnamed African country, and puts the history of Rome secondary to the documentation of a military coup gone wrong.  The result is truly radical Shakespeare.  In this fresh re-telling, the play is controlled by the performance context, and ably demonstrates the dangerous power that literature can hold.

The production is set in an unnamed east African country, where the past and present collide.  Although predominantly dressed in modern clothing, the spirit of the past lingers around this Julius Caesar, in the shape of the soothsayer, a figure drawn directly from African folklore, and the formal togas the characters wear to the Senate.  BAM’s Harvey Theatre was a perfect backdrop for this production, and the nature of the space brought the audience into an intimate relationship with the players, further emphasizing the play’s contemporary relevance.

The English cast employ East African accents, chosen for their musicality, and the result is a glorious musicality that insists the audience pay attention.  Patterson Joseph is a self-righteous and energetic Brutus, who rapidly unravels in the second half of the play.  His performance finds its mirror in Ray Feardon’s Antony, who begins the play as a shell-suit clad playboy, only to morph into a fearsome, cold-blooded general in the wake of Caesar’s death.  Although the volume sometimes overwhelmed the language, the rising hysteria worked well to articulate the chaos unleashed in the killing of Caesar.  What is really brought home in this production, is the extent to which the conspirators, bound up in their self-important ideology, forget to come up with a plan for after Caesar is dead – a point nicely brought home when one of the crowd calls out “Brutus for Caesar!”

The production isn’t perfect – Cassius feels too skittish to bear the weight of his conspiracy, and his moments often feel overwrought – but the smaller roles, such as Lucius, give a real humanity to one of Shakespeare’s more overtly political plays.  As a result, the production feels fresh, new and entirely relevant to its performance context, which is no small feat. (L. Geddes, October 2012)

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