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.
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I cannot believe people's response to this play. I saw it at the weekend and honestly felt that Michael Grandage must be tearing his hair out, knowing that his incredible Donmar Warehouse has been turned into a venue for cheap, GCSE drama. I found the production embarrassing and gimicky. I have no issue with Phillida Lloyd's desire to hand the play over to women, the problem was that the production was diabolical. I cringed my way through the whole thing, and spent a large amount physically having to put my head in my hands. The play itself, which is amazing, was put to the bottom of the pile of priorities, and it seems that the most important thing was to get as many overly-forced, heavy-handed visual effects in as possible. It's as if the director had no idea that she had 3 phenominally talented female actresses to lead her cast, who would have created something far superior if they were just reading the lines from a script, sat on 3 chairs in the middle of an empty space.
Went to see this on Wednesday and I thought it was fantastic. It was tremendously moving made more so given that the conceit is that the play is being performed by the inmates of a women's prison. The loss of liberties that the play is about is mirrored in the incarceration of the players. Frances Barber and Cush Jumbo were superb but Harriet Walter was fabulous as Brutus. If you can get hold of a ticket I would strongly urge that you go and see this production
I went to JCae this week at Donmar and thoroughly recommend it. Seeing and hearing Shakespeare again without the men in bedsheets was a delight and gave me new insights in the power of this play. If you have seen Twelfth Night with its all male cast then seeing this is will round off your year. So pleased I went to make up my own mind, so should you!