Julius Caesar – January 2013

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

Venue: Donmar Warehouse

Date: Thursday 17th January 2013

We only just made this performance with a few minutes to spare. The fire at Victoria station this morning meant our planned train was cancelled, but the next one ran pretty much to schedule and with some faster than usual walking (for us) we made it to the Donmar with just enough time for me to make a quick trip to the ladies – with two hours and no interval, I wanted to be prepared.

Mind you, I wasn’t happy when I entered the auditorium and saw the plastic bucket seats. Friends had warned us about this but I’d forgotten, and after all the stresses of the morning I wasn’t in a good humour when I sat beside Steve and ran through my pre-flight checklist: glasses, clean; phone, OFF (you know who you are); cough sweet, in (ditto); tissues, handy.

My feeling of depression deepened as I took in the ‘realistic’ prison setting: drab walls, locked doors with viewing windows, a scruffy sofa and some chairs in the right hand corner, some institutional paraphernalia in the other and along the back wall, a drum, an electric guitar, etc. There were two levels of balcony with metal steps on the right hand side. The spotlights were like searchlights, and there was strip lighting above the central area, mostly switched off once the play started. There was a trolley of some sort which was used from time to time, but the stage was usually bare of furniture.

The costumes were in keeping with this design concept. The women prisoners wore grey tracksuits with grey hoodies, and used woollen masks to cover their faces when needed. They also wore great coats, army fatigues or dresses as the occasion required, and there was even a spot of nudity, though not in a salacious way. The red rubber gloves will get a mention later on.

I knew that a women’s prison was the setting beforehand, but the full awfulness of the situation only dawned as I came into the acting space. There was some suitably unpleasant stuff at the beginning of the performance as well, with the prisoners being marched on stage and standing in line followed by a short display of anarchy as they ran around, shouted and screamed, hurled some stuff about and generally behaved badly. What pulled them together was the announcement from the first balcony, by Antony as it turned out, that ‘she’ was coming. The dialogue for this bit was mainly invented, but they did include the soothsayer’s first warning to Caesar, and they staged it pretty well. Carrie Rock played the soothsayer as a girl-woman who often sat by herself cradling a baby doll. The others regarded her as crazy or off her head with drugs, so when she approached Antony on the balcony she was allowed through. She was holding a magazine and pointed to it when she warned of the Ides of March; Antony took the magazine and made it clear this was an astrological prediction with some lines about Libra being very successful but having to watch out you don’t upset others.

With Caesar’s arrival (Frances Barber), things took a more orderly and more menacing turn. She spoke to the crowd and had them in the palm of her hand, and then they started a little exercise routine which had me laughing. Designed to show Caesar’s power over her followers, it made me think that Frances Barber was playing a megalomaniac criminal aerobics instructor. She had the group moving to one side, then the other, going down then up, and the whole thing was hilarious. Some face masks had been thrown down before this, and when the group turned round there was the strange effect of seeing so many Caesars facing us. I assume this was also meant to be chilling or disturbing in some way, but it reminded me of Frances Barber’s recent role in Doctor Who, and I suspected they were trading on that to impress the younger audience members. Whatever the reason, it didn’t engage me, and I was already thinking I’d give the performance fifteen minutes before walking out, something I don’t even consider normally.

Fortunately, once Caesar went off with her followers to an upstairs corner, we were left with Cassius (Jenny Jules) and Brutus (Harriet Walter), and there was no way anything short of a nuclear explosion was going to get me out of my seat once those two got started. Their delivery of the lines was crystal clear and their portrayal of these two characters was the best I’ve ever seen. Admittedly there was a lot missing in this heavily cut production, but the set pieces between these two were pretty much intact and gave us a very detailed picture of their difficult relationship. When they were talking, the setting disappeared into the background (the lights were lowered at this point as well) and the play began to come alive. Cassius’s passion came across strongly, and I could believe for once that there was an existing close friendship between these two people. The accounts of Caesar’s weakness, especially the swim across the river, were so vivid that Cassius’s resentment of Caesar’s success became very clear and understandable.

During this scene there were the necessary cheers from the upper corner, and when Caesar came back down with her followers they made a lot more of this short section than usual. They had placed a table and two chairs in the middle of the stage some time before Cassius and Brutus started their dialogue, and now Caesar put what looked like a pizza box down on the table, threw back the lid and invited everyone to grab a slice. Later, I realised it must have been a box of doughnuts, or perhaps it was a mixture, who knows? Cassius held aloof over on the right of the stage, but Brutus dived in as fast as the others and ate her food by one of the pillars under the balcony, just on Caesar’s left. Caesar’s comment about ‘fat, sleek-headed men’ was accompanied by her stroking Brutus’s head very affectionately, and instead of the rest of the speech being done as a side conversation, or as an open insult by ignoring Cassius’s presence, here Cassius was brought over to sit on one of the chairs and had half a doughnut stuffed in her mouth by Caesar. I didn’t have the presence of mind to check out Brutus’s response to this, as the tension had built up and I was focused on Cassius and Caesar. The derogatory description of Cassius was then given to all and sundry, including Brutus, and this demonstration of total power was rounded off by Caesar biting off the other bit of doughnut that was sticking out of Cassius’s mouth and then giving her a kiss. Cassius was mostly frozen during this scene, but her anger was evident and I noticed that she clenched her fists during the kiss.

Once Caesar had established her authority, she left with Antony and the gang and the other two sat down with Casca to find out what the cheering had been about. Ishia Bennison was excellent as Casca, with a rueful, world-weary cynicism that brought out the humour of her speech perfectly. With the foundations of the plot laid, they skipped the storm scenes altogether and immediately returned to Brutus’s house with Brutus calling for the sleepy Lucius. Again Harriet Walter delivered Brutus’s lines superbly well, and I was particularly struck by the line “Th’abuse of greatness is when it disjoins Remorse from power.” How true.

The letter was thrown down from the balcony instead of brought in by Lucius, and when the conspirators arrived they all wore woollen masks. These were gradually removed as the scene progressed, and when the oath was suggested by Cassius, all the others came and knelt in a circle by Brutus, holding out their hands to swear whatever was required. Brutus spoiled the party, as usual, but her words were inspiring, reminding them all of their common bond and their noble nature. Mind you, Cassius was really starting to get hacked off when Brutus also shoved her oar in about killing Mark Antony. I got the impression that Cassius respected Brutus too much to cause a fuss, and went along with her interpretation of the situation with fewer misgivings than Cassius often shows.

Once the other conspirators had left, Brutus was confronted by Portia, played by Clare Dunne (doubled with Octavius). This is normally the part where I start to lose interest, but again the relationship between these characters fairly crackled with energy, and I enjoyed this scene more than I ever have before. I did find Clare’s Irish brogue a little strong at times, but the fact that she was several months pregnant, with a significant bump, added to both Brutus’s concerns for her welfare and Portia’s own argument that Brutus is neglecting her own health. Her thigh wound was made just before the line “I have made strong proof of my constancy”, and I didn’t spot any fake blood this time, though as Brutus covered her wound very quickly I may have missed it.

The Caius Ligarius part was axed, so the next scene was Caesar’s decision to go to the senate/not to go to the senate/go to the senate. At first Caesar was helped into her black coat by a couple of servants, then she took it off when Calpurnia’s persuasions succeeded, and put it back on again once Casca (instead of Decius Brutus) had her say. Caesar responded very angrily when Casca asked for a reason to give the senate, and everyone else looked cowed. After walking across the stage, Caesar softened enough to give her reasons, for Casca’s ear only, and Casca had to work fast to think of an alternative interpretation of Calpurnia’s dream. This began to change Caesar’s mind, but the absolute clincher was the mention of a crown – how Caesar’s eyes lit up at that word! She was scathing towards Calpurnia after that, and soon had her coat back on for the trip to the senate.

The soothsayer’s part was trimmed to “Caesar, beware ……. It is bent against Caesar”. She said these lines in a disjointed way, wandering around the stage and eventually leaving it, followed by the short scene between Portia and Lucius in which the soothsayer didn’t appear at all. It was very clear that Portia, now knowing about the plot, was extremely worried about Brutus’s safety, and equally as worried about letting slip any information which would spoil the assassination.

As Caesar was arriving at the Senate House, Mark Antony approached a woman in the front row, almost directly in front of us, and asked her to move to another chair which, along with a few others, had been placed just in front of the area covered by the balcony. This left the central seat for Caesar to sit on, and the audience became “his Senate”. We had a very good view of the pleas by Metellus and the others for the repeal of Publius Cimber, and both the best and worst of views for the actual assassination itself. I spotted Casca coming along our row shortly before the deed, and she was right behind Caesar when she delivered the line “Speak hands for me” and stabbed Caesar in the back (or neck; as I said before, in some ways we had the worst of views). The other conspirators took their turns, and when Brutus stepped up to finish Caesar off, looking deeply unhappy that such an act was necessary, we could see her face as she almost hugged Caesar while stabbing her. Caesar came out of the chair and clung to Brutus for a few moments, trying to get out her last line; eventually she collapsed, centre stage, and like a true drama queen wrung every last gasp out of the death.

It was at this point that someone drew forward a basket with red gloves in it. As they hadn’t used fake blood for this scene either, I had wondered how they were going to dip their hands, but as they discussed their actions and their next steps, they put the gloves on their hands to represent the blood, which I found very effective. I also thought it was a typical woman’s approach – don’t use fake blood, we’ll only have to clean it up afterwards.

Mark Antony arrived immediately, without a herald, and shook hands with the conspirators. Again Brutus overruled Cassius about the funeral arrangements, and this time Cassius was less happy to acquiesce. After the conspirators left, Antony drew her right hand out of her pocket and it now wore a red glove; this was the hand which had grasped the conspirators’ gloves. The servant from Octavius was soon moved to tears at the sight of Caesar’s corpse, and Antony was very angry when she said “Get thee apart and weep”, driving the poor servant away from the body; bit possessive, I thought.

For the crowd scene, the lines about some of the people going off to hear what Cassius has to say were dropped, and the ‘plebs’ raced around the stage in a state of panic, with one or another coming to rest, often at a significant moment in Brutus’s speech. Brutus herself was on the trolley, which had been wheeled into the middle of the stage, and with all the helter-skelter activity it was hard to hear her initial lines. This was a decent representation of the very panic which she and the rest of the conspirators had been keen to avoid, but it did detract from important aspects of Brutus’s rhetoric. Given Harriet Walter’s excellent delivery, this seemed too much like dumbing down, emphasising the ‘important’ bits with movement in case the dummies in the audience weren’t up to the language, and naturally it got up my nose. What I did like was the final part of this section, where the crowd congregated around Brutus while they expressed their approval of her actions; as they touched her and moved her around I noticed that they removed her red gloves, a very visual indication that they absolved Brutus of all blame for the murder of Caesar. At the very end, they clustered tightly round Brutus, and when they parted the body of Caesar was lying on the ground, still in the black coat (although it was another actress playing the corpse). The action then moved seamlessly into Antony’s oration, and that’s when things turned ugly.

Antony stood on the ground level to speak to the crowd, and the ‘mantle’ was another version of the black coat, which appeared to have some rips and tears where the shivs had entered. Cush Jumbo delivered Antony’s speech pretty well, and it wasn’t long before there was a mini-riot, with people rushing off the stage to do lots of damage. Antony spoke briefly with Octavius’s servant, and then Cinna the poet arrived for her date with destiny.

The first Cinna was taken away by the guards for some reason – Steve thinks it was to get her medication. Another Cinna had to be pressganged into the role, and since she didn’t know the lines she was given a copy of the text to read from. The rioters were pretty rough with her; she was punched and kicked and slammed against one of the metal pillars. This led to a nosebleed which threatened to stop the whole performance. Two (female) guards arrived, I think the lights came on, and it was only the intervention of Caesar herself, who was apparently also the director of the play, that got things back on track. Cinna was given a hanky to deal with the blood, and the others got on with the play. (This was presumably one reason for not using fake blood during the assassination and other scenes; it would be confusing to have fake blood playing both ‘fake’ blood and ‘real’ blood.)

Antony, Lepidus and Octavius delivered their short scene well. A prisoner was kneeling at the front of the stage, head covered in a hood, while the three leaders stood along the back. After Lepidus left, Antony and Octavius took turns shooting the prisoner, who fell down and then obligingly lifted herself back up to a kneeling position for the next execution. At the very end, Octavius took pity on the prisoner and released her, only to shoot her as she headed off stage, an early indication of Octavius’s ruthlessness.

Brutus’s tent was created by dropping a divided sheet down for the tent opening and having a sofa on one side and a table with stools on the other. The meeting of Cassius and Brutus took place outside this tent, but once they sent off their officers, the lighting changed and we were immediately inside. The scene began with Cassius’s arrival, and was another strong episode in this performance. The dialogue was still crystal clear, and the strength of the relationship between the two characters was very evident. The ‘dagger’ drawn by Cassius was actually a plastic gun, and the entrance of the poet was dropped.

After the passion of the early heated exchange, there was a moment, perhaps inspired by the Poet’s contribution, when Harriet Walter snapped at some sound and swore at the actors who were behind the curtain. I forget what she said, but it was clear her prison character was very angry. It did release some of the tension, and at the time I wasn’t happy about that, but they soon had the scene up and running again with the revelation of Portia’s death and the rest of the scene flowed through very well, with Brutus again overriding Cassius’s better military strategy to hand a clear tactical advantage to the enemy.

The ghost scene was kept simple, with Lucius having a brass instrument and still managing to fall asleep, and Caesar’s ghost appearing for the brief exchange with Brutus. There were no others in the tent, so we were soon on to Octavius and Antony discussing their battle plans up on the balcony. Octavius began to show her tougher side, insisting on taking the right flank, and Antony seemed to be more petulant than a good general should. The confrontation between the two sides’ generals took place on the ground level, and instead of swords they drew their plastic guns again, pointing them at different people depending on the state of the slanging match.

The battle scenes were cut a bit: I remember Brutus and Cassius taking leave of each other, just in case, and then Cassius went through her despair and death, followed by Brutus’s recognition of defeat and her death. Both bodies were still on the floor as Antony and Octavius arrived. With a camera giving us the newsreel footage on the screens, we saw Lucius accepted by Octavius, and then Antony began the closing speeches with “this was the noblest Roman of them all”. She spoke these lines to the camera while the spare cast members picked up Brutus’s body and held it upright behind Antony so it was in shot. Octavius interrupted Antony and spoke over her, taking her lines before she was meant to, and walking in front of Antony to take centre stage. The ‘play’ ended with Octavius’s final lines, and a strong sense that Antony wouldn’t be in charge for long (but that’s another play).

Shortly before the action finished, there had been a reminder from the guards that lock up was only ten minutes away. The prisoners just had time to complete their performance before the guards came back again to take the prisoners back to their cells. It was at this point that we realised that Francis Barber had been a guard all along, which explained her authority and why the play continued after the bloody nose incident. The performance ended with the prisoners being trooped off stage and the lights going out, after which they returned and we gave them rousing applause.

I’m not sure where it happened, but in the later stages the soothsayer wandered naked around the stage carrying her doll, while other actors came on and stood randomly about the place. The soothsayer may have spoken some lines – I don’t remember – and I have absolutely no idea what it was about.

I felt the choice to set the play in a women’s prison was OK, but they didn’t do enough to fully justify it for me. There was the suggestion of lesbian relationships with the ‘wife’ characters, but that wasn’t emphasised nor did it enlighten; on the whole this was a pretty straight reading of the play, albeit a curtailed version. I didn’t have any sense of the way this play impacted on the prisoners’ lives, nor how their experiences influenced their performances or the staging choices, other than the obvious areas of props and furniture. We, the audience, were clearly part of the context, members of the public who had come to see what these prisoners could achieve thanks to the programs paid for by our tax contributions. There were some snarling references to that during the crowd scenes, but nothing worth noting up specifically. Steve did remark on the importance of the play to Harriet Walter’s prison character – her short temper during the tent scene for example, and he saw that she was in tears at the end – but most of the prisoners didn’t seem to care one way or the other. I accept that this setting gave a ready-made explanation for an all-women cast, but again I feel that this sells everyone short: the writer, whose work transcends the ‘realistic’ approach and often works much better when the setting is kept indistinct, the audience, who (mostly) have good imaginations and can go with well-delivered Shakespearean dialogue to just about anywhere, and the actors themselves, who in this case delivered such brilliant readings of their characters that I would happily see this again if I could have a comfy seat. (Actually, I’d probably be willing to forego the comfy seat.)

I left feeling very happy that we’d made it in time to see this production, and also that we’ll be lucky to see such tremendous central performances again. I noticed that Harriet Walter’s slight lisp was more pronounced today, but it didn’t interfere with her delivery, which was impeccable.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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