Harriet Walter

Review by Carol Rocamora

No matter what, don’t miss the Donmar Warehouse’s ground-breaking, norm-smashing production of Julius Caesar, now streaming on St. Ann’s Warehouse website through October 15.  

The all-female cast is, of course, the most arresting feature of this powerful production.  But that’s only one aspect of its uniqueness.  Director Phyllida Lloyd sets her production in a woman’s prison, where the inmates are putting on Shakespeare’s tragedy.  In a performance taped at Donmar King’s Cross in London (December 2016), we first see the cast being led by prison guards (played by company members) down a cement path along a brick wall, through steel gates, and into an arena-like space within the prison complex (designed by Bunny Christie) where they perform the play before a live audience.  Company members wear sweats, and there are no costumes or set elements. 

An actress (Jade Anouka, who will play Mark Antony) announces that the play they’re about to perform has been chosen because it relates to the prisoner’s own experience.  That introduction is followed by another actress (Jackie Clune, who will play Caesar) as she leads the company in calisthenics (part of the prison routine).  That exercise segues seamlessly into the play itself, and we’re off on an explosive two-hour ride. 

Jade Anouka

So overwhelmed are we by the power of this production, that we forget its gender choice and are swept away by the memorable performances.  Harriet Walter is as admirable and principled a Brutus as ever I’ve seen, Jackie Clune’s Caesar is charismatic and cruel, Martina Laird’s Cassius is deadly persuasive, Jade Anouka’s Mark Antony is noble, Karen Dunbar’s Scottish- accented Casca is colorful, and the rest of this stellar, multi-racial company is superb. 

As for Phyllida Lloyd’s wildly theatrical, thrilling direction (supported by James Farncombe’s lighting), it keeps you on edge and off balance every moment. The production is in constant motion.  Actresses run up and down the steep aisles, and Caesar is assassinated while sitting in the front row between two terrified audience members!  The conspirators don blood-red rubber gloves to advertise their deed – a striking and frightening image.  As for sound (“lend me your ears!”), there’s a wild female musician who pounds the life out of a drum set that’s dragged center stage.  She’s later joined by a deafening band for the final battle scene, choreographed by Ann Yee.  The violent fight scenes – staged by Kate Waters – are terrifying.

Julius Caesar is the first in a trilogy of all-female Shakespeare productions staged at the Donmar (2013-2017) and then transferred to St. Ann’s Warehouse.  Thankfully, all are now streaming on the St. Ann’s website, all directed by Phyllida Lloyd, all starring Harriet Walter. 

Next up is Henry IV (October 16-22), followed by The Tempest (October 23-29).  All three will be streamed together from October 30-November 1.  According to the theatre, the production of Julius Caesar was inspired by a shared creative process between real prisoners, actresses, and the production team in association with the theatre company Clean Break and the York St. John University Prison Partnership Project.  This unique collaboration provides a remarkable authenticity to an unforgettable work.

Meanwhile, the timing of Julius Caesar’s streaming couldn’t be more appropriate, given the traumatic power politics we’re now experiencing.  All of us who have been transfixed before our TVs for months and months, watching sparring senators and ruthless power-struggling, will find painful parallels in Roman times.  “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves,” says Cassius, reminding us to look within – and then make a change.

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, a Donmar Warehouse Production now streaming on St. Ann’s Warehouse website through October 15.

(Photos Helen Maybanks)