Phyllida 'The Iron Lady' Lloyd's all-female 'Caesar' has a twinkle in its eye, its tongue in its cheek, and a cast scarcely less storied than the Roman statesmen it depicts. It's also a timely rejoinder to the increasing vogue for boys-only productions of Shakespeare classics.
Yet despite Harriet Walter's monumental performance as reluctant assassin Brutus – one for the ages, unquestionably – Lloyd manages to snatch mild anticlimax from the jaws of triumph. This is a high-concept production that feels forced and messy next to the RSC's brilliant pan-African take from earlier this year.
Lloyd has made Shakespeare's 'JC' into a play within a play. The moment of revelation comes shortly after the assassination of Caesar, when the dead dictator (Frances Barber) bounds back on her feet to join in a good-natured ruck with fellow inmates – and we realise we're supposed to be watching a group of jolly jailbirds performing the piece for a lark. A cheeky riposte to the blokey shackles of Bardic reverence, sure. But it also means the tragedy stakes are greatly diminished when we're winkingly reminded that nobody really dies.
And, on a practical note, while Bunny Christie's austere jail set is an impressive transformation for the Donmar, the low banks of hard plastic seats lead to some mindbogglingly bad sightlines – from the fourth row back I simply couldn't see huge chunks of the action.
Nonetheless, Lloyd's production has a brashly enjoyable energy. And the cast is great: Barber's jolly, vulgar Caesar impresses, as does Cush Jumbo's overzealous naif of an Antony, Jenny Jules's burningly intense Cassius and Clare Dunne's hard, guttural Octavius.
Towering above them all, though, is Walter. This 62-year-old woman makes for a devastatingly handsome 42-year-old man, with her short, slicked back hair, chiselled jaw, ramrod spine and quiet hero's charisma. In her agonised eyes and unhesitant speaking we can feel the terrible weight of her cause: she is going to assassinate her friend Caesar because it is the right thing to do, and her tormented lack of self-doubt confirms it. A phenomenal performance in a mass of good ones, which succeed in spite of the production, not because of it.