Julius Caesar

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Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar. St. Ann’s Warehouse (see Off Broadway). By William Shakespeare. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. With Harriet Walter, Jenny Jules, Frances Barber, Cush Jumbo. Running time: 2hrs 10mins. No intermission.

Julius Caesar: in brief

We have seen our fair share of all-male Shakespeare in recent years, thanks to such companies as Edward Hall's Propeller, but high-level all-female stagings are rare. Phyllida Lloyd (Mary Stuart) directs this prison-themed Donmar Warehouse production with a cast that includes Harriet Walter, Frances Barber, Jenny Jules and Cush Jumbo.

Julius Caesar: theater review by David Cote

To paraphrase Hamlet, when it comes to Shakespeare, “the frame’s the thing.” Directors have been stripping the Bard’s plays bare or placing them in exotic periods since the turn of the last century. His works have passed through every filter: minimalist, surrealist, mixed-media, multicultural. Now comes Julius Caesar—the Roman tragedy about ambition and honor—set in a modern-day women’s prison. For a play in which the word man occurs nearly threescore times, there’s nary a Y chromosome in sight.

Before we go into the pros and, ahem, cons of this Donmar Warehouse transfer (which opened in London last year, so spare us the Orange Is the New Black comparisons), let’s be clear about director Phyllida Lloyd’s framework. Is this merely a Julius Caesar that happens to be set in an English women’s prison? Or is it an English women’s prison in which the inmates are putting on Julius Caesar for rehabilitative purposes? That crucial distinction keeps shifting in provocative ways. There are stretches where we intently follow the plot’s political machinations, which the ensemble communicates with admirable force and clarity. Then there are eruptions that pull us out of the Shakespeare and remind us that we’re watching convicts enact a Western classic that speaks to them, but also seems imposed by an external authority.

And that’s perfect. Julius Caesar is, every high schooler knows, about autonomy and the struggle for freedom. And in this version, we can hardly ever ignore the tension between the actors and the script they have been given. The rivalries and petty jealousies in the drab, institutional, constantly policed zone are palpable. In the Act III persecution of Cinna the poet (mistaken for one of Caesar’s killers), the mob’s taunting of him spills over into a minibrawl in which stage combat gives way to real violence. Cue the ad-lib: “What the fuck are you doing?!?” The scene “stops” and the offender is hauled off to solitary confinement. Keep your eye on Frances Barber, who plays Caesar. She has a costume shift at the very end of the night, which upends everything that came before.

As the high-minded but conscience-stricken Brutus, Harriet Walter (last seen on Broadway in 2009’s Mary Stuart) sports a close-cropped coif and a pinched look of moral distress. Walter’s naturally husky voice is pitched even lower, as she weighs the ethical cost of assassinating a potential tyrant, the action urged on her by the regicidal Cassius (Jules). For her part, Jules’s Cassius is a sinewy marvel, a human knife who cuts through the bunkum of divine right with a commonsense approach to power that nevertheless curdles into self-tyranny. The scenes between the anguished Walter and the lupine Jules are some of the show’s most powerful, suggesting that these two have a complex history—possibly romantic. Impish and androgynously charismatic Cush Jumbo cuts a dashing figure as Mark Antony. You can see why this pretty and bright-eyed youth would sway the crowd at Caesar’s funeral with her famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen” oration.

Barber’s title tyrant is a jolly bully whose flashes of sadism (at one point, she force-feeds the “lean and hungry” Cassius a doughnut) prepare the way for the uprising that ends in her brutal murder. The stabbing in the Senate is rendered with appropriate chaos and terror, partly spilling into the front row. When the conspirators ceremoniously bathe their hands in the slain Caesar’s blood, they don red rubber cleaning gloves, an effect somehow more chilling than fake gore. Not every conceptual leap works, however; the Soothsayer is portrayed as a learning disabled girl on a bike, and the inclusion of live rock music strains for “edgy.”

Still, Lloyd’s intermission-free staging is blisteringly tense and crystalline, performed by a fierce ensemble that combines seasoned vets with promising young talent. Director and company may take great liberties with their frame, but this may be the most thrilling, lucid and, yes, authentic Julius Caesar for years to come. It’s a pleasure to be their captive audience for two unbroken hours. —Theater review by David Cote

THE BOTTOM LINE: A killer all-female cast makes Shakespeare’s Roman classic its bitch.

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote

RECOMMENDED: The 25 best stage-to-film Shakespeare adaptations.

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