15 October 2013

'Julius Caesar' (Donmar Warehouse)

I hadn’t been to St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO since March 2012 when I saw the Wooster Group-New York City Players collaboration, Eugene O’Neill’s Early Plays, but on Friday evening, 4 October, my frequent theater companion, Diana, and I drove over the Manhattan Bridge to see the U.S. première of Donmar Warehouse’s all-female Julius Caesar, which opens St. Ann’s 2013-14 season.  (Early Plays, reported on ROT on 14 March 2012, was presented in St. Ann’s previous location on Water Street, its home since 2000.  The theater moved to Jay Street later in 2012 and will move again to new, permanent digs back on Water Street in 2015.)  Scheduled to run through 3 November, the Brooklyn production began previews on 3 October and opened on 9 October.  Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, Shakespeare’s play was presented in London from November 2012 to February 2013.  Most of the London cast remains with the New York staging, including Harriet Walter (as Brutus), who appeared as Queen Elizabeth I in Lloyd’s production of Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart in 2009 (see my report on ROT, 22 June 2009).

Lloyd has reset the Roman forum to a women’s prison where the inmates and guards perform the drama of power, murder, and betrayal.  According to Donmar’s publicity, Lloyd believes that the play’s impact is enhanced “by the backdrop of female incarceration, a live thrash metal band, and the emotional nuances inherent to women playing men at their most vulnerable.”  For the International Herald Tribune review of the London performance, Matt Wolf described the presentation as “belligerently high-concept.” 

A fair amount of the advanced press coverage has been focused on the gyno-centric nature of the cast.  Most make the point that there have always been lots of all-male Shakespearean productions, including the Globe Theatre renditions of Twelfth Night  and Richard III (both in 2012), which will open in rep on Broadway in November.  Of course, almost all the coverage has mentioned that in Elizabethan times, all of Shakespeare’s female characters were played by males—usually boys—and no women were permitted on stage (Shakespeare in Love notwithstanding) until the tradition was imported from France and the Continent after the Restoration in 1660.  (The existential trick comes when those women-played-by-males disguise themselves as men, a frequent conceit in Shakespeare: consider Viola in Twelfth Night and Imogen in Cymbeline, among others.)  Lloyd’s Julius Caesar, which started life the year Josie Rourke was appointed the first female artistic director of Donmar Warehouse, is by way of turn-about.  Note has been taken, too, that women playing male Shakespearean characters is itself an old tradition, including Sarah Bernhardt’s Hamlet in 1899 and more recently, Fiona Shaw’s Richard II in 1995 at the National and Vanessa Redgrave’s Prospero at the Globe in 2000.  (In this country, Sarah Siddons performed Hamlet in 1775 and in 1983, Diane Venora played the role for Joseph Papp.  In 1837, Charlotte Cushman played Romeo in Albany to her sister’s Juliet.)  Last June and July, another Julius Caesar on stage in New York City, the Smith Street Stage’s modern-dress production in Carroll Park, Brooklyn, presented a Julius Caesar not only performed by a woman but as a woman (still named Julius); Trebonius and Cicero, were also played as females. In the performance at St. Ann’s, the female prisoners are all playing men. 

St. Ann’s artistic director, Susan Feldman, said at first she thought the all-female concept “would be gimmicky”—until she saw a performance.  Arguments supporting Lloyd’s interpretation range from combating the dearth of juicy roles for women, especially in the classics, to balancing the scales for all the men-as-women productions, to female empowerment (all those women with weapons and power!).  At least one theater writer, Tim Walker of The Telegraph, declared, “[W]hat a load of old tosh it all is.”  (For the Brit-deficient, ‘tosh’ is what our English cousins say when they mean ‘crock of shit.’)  He went on to spit out, “Shakespeare never, after all, believed that a single word he wrote would ever be uttered upon a stage by a woman . . .” and ultimately laid the blame for his dismay on Lloyd: “It is an absurd contrivance which serves only to demonstrate quite how imprisoned the director is by a patently daft idea, if not also her political correctness and vanity.”  To add insult to injury, Walker made a point of praising the Globe’s two all-male productions, calling them “classy, respectful and hugely entertaining.”  (The Telegraph was apparently so aggrieved by the production that it ran three negative reviews.)

The Donmar company seems to have espoused the rationale that the production gives women chances to do the kind or meaty and substantial parts usually reserved for men.  It's not just about employment in the theater,” says Rourke.  “It's about hearing women's voices at the center of things, literally giving them roles to play in life and art.”  Lloyd asserts that this Julius Caesar gives the actresses opportunities to play roles other than “the love interest, the tyrant’s wife, the tyrant’s mistress,” and Frances Barber, Caesar at St. Ann’s, feels that the director “wanted us to get rid absolutely of any sort of frilly, female, wily, seductressy nonsense.”   “I find myself playing a lot of wives and girlfriends,” says Jenny Jules, the production’s Cassius, “or parts that support the men's meat-and-potatoes roles."  Jules continues: "It's really fantastic to just be given the chance to chomp on somebody like Cassius. . . .  If, as a woman, I have been allowed to be aggressive or confrontational or violent on stage, the character is always thought of as the villainess.“  And Cush Jumbo, who plays Mark Antony, adds that “you have to be the soundboard of your own work.  You have to balance things out carefully so as not to offend; you feel you can't go too far one way or the other.”  The production’s Brutus, Harriet Walter, had felt that her Shakespearean days were behind her because of the lack of strong female parts.  “Once I’d played Cleopatra,” Walter explains,  “I thought, ‘Now what can I do?’ Because any other female role I was offered in the Shakespeare canon was going to be inferior and less demanding. There was a certain logic to then turn to the male repertory.”  Lloyd, however, also takes up the empowerment argument: “We’re on a mission to inspire women to find their voices.”  Her aim is to “to make young women in the audience feel they are potentially part of not just the romantic and the domestic, but that they could be at the center of the political sphere.”  Says Lloyd, “I wanted to celebrate the first time that a woman got the reins of what we would call a ‘big hitter’ in London theater.”  

Obviously, I can’t speak much to Lloyd’s last point, but I recognize the first ones.  Back in the ’70s and ’80s, African-American actors were making similar arguments for color-blind casting in classical plays because so many talented and well-trained actors weren’t getting the opportunities to play these great roles.  While it was fine to take a white actor and smear him with blackface so he could play Othello (Laurence Olivier, famously), why wasn’t it okay to cast a black actor as, say, Iago?  (In fact, I saw a very interesting staging of Othello in Washington with Avery Brooks as the Moor and Andre Braugher as his Ancient.  And last April, the Royal Shakespeare Company brought its 2012 production of Julius Caesar, which director Gregory Doran relocated to contemporary Africa with an all-black cast, to the Brooklyn Academy of Music.)  Color-blind casting may be a little easier to finesse than gender-blind, but the point is still the same.  It only remains, as far as I’m concerned, how well the director conceives the transformation and how well the company executes it.  But, with Tom Walker’s response in mind, I would never reject the concept: if Portia can stand before a Venetian court and argue that “The quality of mercy is not strained” in drag, then I can’t see denying a Redgrave, a Shaw, or a Walter the chance to stand on a stage and pronounce the great (male) speeches of the Bard.  (I’ve written on ROT on the subject of “non-traditional casting.”  See my post on 20 December 2009.)

So, before I assess how well I think Lloyd and the Donmar troupe executed their idea—or how well that idea itself worked on the St. Ann’s stage (well, performance space: there’s not really a stage per se)—let me try to describe the production.  It’s an integral part of the concept of the show.  First, you’ve read that the play is set in a woman’s prison—but that’s not entirely accurate.  This is a production of Julius Caesar by a group of inmates and the “set” (designed by Bunny Christie) is their common room (or whatever you’d call it), a large open space at the back of which is a wall with a garage-type door slightly stage right of center, a glassed-in booth with closed-circuit TV monitors stage left for the guards to survey the cell block (it also serves as the tech booth and the techies are costumed as guards, too), and a split-level catwalk with a metal railing that’s about seven feet up on stage right and maybe 10 or 12 feet high on the left; there’s a flight of metal stairs connecting the two levels.  The space, which has a bare cement floor, is set up like a proscenium stage with the spectators in steep metal risers across the front of the acting area.  There are two concrete columns just in front of the risers, the stage right one of which is occasionally used as a sort of crow’s nest.  The rest of the set is made up of whatever furniture and detritus lie about the space, found objects as it were, mostly odd chairs, a table or two, and porn mags. 

The inmate company—we don’t learn who produced or directed the diegetic performance, one of the prisoners, a prison staffer, or some outside contractor—seems somehow to have come up with makeshift costume pieces such as great coats, berets, and ski masks to cover their gray prison sweats, as well as props like red rubber gloves (to represent the bloody hands of the conspirators), a paper Burger King crown, knives (stand-ins for Shakespeare’s swords), and rifles and pistols (all harmless fakes, obviously).  (No credit is listed for the costumes, though they were apparently put together by designer Christie; the fights were choreographed by Kate Waters and the movement director was Ann Yee.)  The lighting is harsh and white, as if from fluorescents or floods (though, to be sure, it was subtly designed by Neil Austin for appropriate theatrical effects without violating the conceit) and the sound, including the heavy metal band on a rolling platform, is loud and unmodulated in the hard-surfaced, undampened room.  (The sound was designed by Tom Gibbons and the music composed by Gary Yershon.)

The audience, which had been waiting in the Brooklyn Roasting Company, a coffee-roasting business next door, enters through the garage doors on Jay Street, herded and monitored by guards (starting with the only two males in the company, who I think are either actual security guards or members of the St. Ann’s staff as they merely checked tickets and ushered us into the holding area, which looks like a loading dock.  (St. Ann’s new theater was formerly a furniture warehouse.)  There a squad of female guards warns us of the rules for prison visitors, our assigned role; hands out a list of “Visiting Information” (“If in an emergency you need to leave your seat, a prison officer will be present to escort you out.  Please be aware there is NO re-admission”); and barks instructions at us.  A second garage door opens on the platform at the other end of the loading dock, and we’re marshaled up the steps and into the performance area. The performance, it’s clear, has already begun. 

Once we’re seated—the spectators are herded over from the coffee business in two groups and the metal garage doors are opened and closed for each group, like passengers on a space ship passing through an airlock—the actors are escorted in through the inner garage door by a squad of officers who depart before the action starts.  This is a kind of environmental performance because, even though the actors use only the “stage” area, the whole room is part of the performance environment since we spectators are designated characters in the production. 

The play-within-the play, once it’s started, for the most part continues without the prison envelope leaking in directly.  There’s a modern-language preamble in which Mark Antony (Cush Jumbo) and her fellow inmates, wearing paper masks with Caesar’s (that is, Barber’s) face, participate in what Huffington Post’s Michael Giltz calls “a rousing bacchanal” set to punk-rock music (one on-line reviewer identifies the song as “a punk karaoke version of Jackie DeShannon's “When You Walk in the Room,” but I didn’t recognize it) that was an evocation of Caesar’s triumphant return to Rome.  Then, in the scene in which Caesar is killed, one member of the audience—it was a man the night I saw the show—is selected to come down and sit in one of the chairs occupied by the senator-assassins.  His only role is that of observer or witness and after the assassination, he’s escorted back to his seat.  (I’m not sure what the point of that is, however.)  More significantly, when Cinna the Poet appears, the actress portraying him is suddenly called out by an officer and another inmate (Helen Cripps) is pushed forward, a script thrust into her hands, and Julius Caesar continues.  A few moments later, when the crowd attacks the poet as a stand-in for Cinna the conspirator (Meline Danielewicz), the violence becomes more “real” than playacting—“Ow, that fuck ing hurt!” yells the jailbird—and the guards come rushing in to break up the assault.  Nonetheless, the atmosphere of the jail, in the terms of the popular imagination (consider Oz, Prison Break, or any such depiction), permeates the whole production, both the outer one and the diegetic one—which isn’t really surprising since we’re sitting in the set.

Now, I have to report that I was sorely disappointed in the whole proceeding.  A while ago (18 September 2009), I published an article on ROT called “Similes, Metaphors—And The Stage” in which I discussed the simile production, an interpretation of classic plays that “simply shifts the time or location to an analogous one nearer our own,” and the metaphorical kind that “examines the play from the inside, ‘generating provocative theatrical images . . . that are suggestive of the play rather than specific, reverberant rather than concrete.’”  (My article was based on Robert Brustein’s “Reworking the Classics: Homage or Ego Trip?” in the New York Times, which I republished on the blog on 10 March 2011.)  I put Lloyd’s version of Julius Caesar at the “the prosaic simile” end of the continuum, some distance from “the poetic metaphor.”  To be frank, it all seemed to me like “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

I can well understand the impulse to let women inhabit those powerful male characters and get to speak those stirring words.  I have no fundamental objection to resetting a classic play, as I revealed in “Similes, Metaphors.”   So, what went awry, in my estimation, with Donmar’s Julius Caesar?  As I see it, three failings help keep this from being a good theater experience: the company’s philosophy or rationale, the production concept, and the physical production.  I’ll start with what did work for me, however: the acting.

The JC ensemble is mixed as far as experience and classical background is concerned.  Some, like Walter, who was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2011, and Barber, have done all the major female Shakespearean roles and other classic parts; others are just starting out in their careers and have done mostly contemporary plays and film or TV roles.  Nonetheless, the company handled the characters well, not to mention the poetry.  If you add in the conceit that the actors are all playing prison inmates who are putting on a Shakespeare play, they come off even better because it lends an element of innate tension, violence, and anger to that of the Shakespearean story.  There’s no issue with the cast managing these male roles.  That’s especially true since the actresses aren’t pretending to be men, even if they’re not turning the male characters into women (as the other Brooklyn production of JC did).  I had no trouble accepting Walter as a strong, upright person with sincere beliefs and concerns but simultaneous doubts and insecurities about the severity of the actions he’s forced to take.  Walter is forthright and, while a commanding stage presence, thoughtful and occasionally uncertain.  Barber, by contrast, is more the gang leader, the warlord.  She’s shorter than Walter and, in the trench coat and beret, presents a square figure, solid and inflexible—what New York Timesman Ben Brantley describes as “the butchest of them all.”  (In fact, Barber’s stage image reminded me a lot of Boris Badenov, the Pottsylvanian spy character in the Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoon series of the 1960s, but without the accent—or the mustache.  Sorry—I know I’m a geezer.  What can I say?)  Barber exudes Caesar’s self-confidence (he defies the “Ides of March” warning, for instance) and innate cruelty (he force-feeds Jenny Jules’s Cassius a donut just because he looks suspiciously “lean and hungry”), but comes off as somewhat one-notish for the portion of the play in which the character appears.

In the final analysis, however, I found I was only mildly taken by Lloyd’s rationale for mounting this interpretation.  Yes, I know that actresses are given short shrift when it comes to the juicy roles in the classics.  In his review of the production, Brantley called Julius Caesarone of Shakespeare’s most manly tragedies,” and someone did a count showing that the word ‘men’ comes up 54 times in JC and ‘women’ gets only four mentions.  But that’s not a revelation, and the perceived need to redress it isn’t a new phenomenon, either.  It seems to me that far too much emphasis has been placed on the rationale for doing this all-woman staging when all that’s really necessary is just to do it—and spend all the effort and focus on making the production’s point—the one about power, control, resentment, and repression.  I believe we’ll get the idea about female empowerment, both from a social and a theatrical standpoint.  Audiences aren’t really that benighted, though some directors and producers like to think we are.  (I wrote a post called “To Note, Or Not To Note” in which I made this point; see ROT on 28 August 2009.)  Do the show, I say; let the socio-political point fend for itself.

There’s a problem inherent in Lloyd’s fundamental premise, however.  She chose to do the play with women playing men: the characters are still men doing all that power-wielding and saber-rattling.  Diana suggested it might have been more interesting if the characters were the women inmates—a sort of West Side Story with JC as Leonard Bernstein, et al., did with Romeo and Juliet: turn the Roman men into contemporary female prisoners, say one jailhouse gang (led by Caesar and then Mark Antony) fighting another (commanded by Brutus and his crew) for dominance in the yard.  I’d need more time to think that out, but it would accomplish one thing this interpretation could use: putting the actual women, rather than women portraying men, in the positions of strength and control.  That’s the point of the exercise, as I understand it—along with the artistic one of letting actresses speak those magnificent lines.  (To be precise, the actresses at St. Ann’s aren’t really playing the men of Julius Caesar.  They’re playing female convicts who are playing the Shakespearean parts.  But we never learn who the prisoners are or what they want from this experience.  They’re not really there.)  I said this cast handled the powerful poetry excellently, but whoa!—how magnificent would it have been if actresses like Walter, Barber, Jules, and Jumbo got to bust loose on the roles themselves, too?  I’d pay to see that!  As it is, there are actresses saying the words—but not women.  It would take a lot more thought to create such a metaphorical adaptation than Lloyd’s simile production requires.  The first concept would be a more complex reconsideration than the second, which requires really nothing more than casting and a little costuming.  Lloyd’s version of the play doesn’t so much empower women as simply provide an opportunity for non-traditional casting.  That’s a nice goal, righteous and worthy on its own, but it doesn’t do what Lloyd’s troupe says their goal is and what Donmar’s and St. Ann’s publicity proclaims the show’s all about.

Now, I’ve gleaned from other cultural evidence (TV and movies, for instance) that social upheavals seem to come to the fore in Britain some years after they hit here.  British society, at least in its TV incarnation, went through the issues of racism long after they’d become familiar subjects of treatment in our cultural media, and the same with feminism and women’s issues.  (By the time Prime Suspect hit British TV, the idea of a female police detective with rank was no longer a new idea on U.S. sets.  We’d already done Cagney & Lacey, not to mention Police Woman, and female lieutenants and captains were already presences in TV cop shops here.  If Helen Mirren hadn’t been so good and the show overall so well made, they wouldn’t have gotten much notice.  The gender politics in the series seemed so settled to me that when it came up, it felt absolutely retro.)  I’m not saying that the problems have all been resolved.  Of course they haven’t; and we still have sexism, not to mention racism, in even official situations where you’d think it was long passé.  But as a selling point—‘We’re going to expose sexism and gender bias in the theater and strike a blow for women’s equality!’—just isn’t going to move me much.  I mean, didn’t we do that 30 years ago?  Not solve it, but make it an issue?  My consciousness has been raised, people! 

Of course, I’m not saying don’t do the show.  I’m saying don’t sell it on the basis of the contemporary (your contemporary) politics.  Focus on the play’s politics, Shakespeare’s politics.  If you do your jobs well, the politics will take care of itself—you’ll make your argument.  And, what’s more, I’ll get to come out of the show thinking, ‘Hey, they made a good point.  That’s right, too—and it’s still happening, isn’t it.’  I’ll feel like I worked something out without being led by the nose.  But tell me ahead of time, beat it into me that that’s what you’re up to, I’ll do what I’ve done now: come out of the theater (or, really, sit in it as the play’s unfolding) and say, ‘Okay, but I know all this—it’s the 21st century, for goodness’ sake.  You could say it in a sentence and it’d be just as revelatory as all this mishegoss.’ 

This disappointment with the context for the production was exacerbated by the discomfort generated by the physical set-up.  I already said the production is loud—the cement-and-metal room reverberates—and the heavy metal thrash music adds to this condition.  The actors all speak at top volume, though I’m sure there’s a rationale for that (prisons are loud places, men in combat shout a lot, and so on).  St. Ann’s molded plastic seats are hard (and I’m more than a touch arthritic; I said I was a geezer, remember), so prolonged sitting in a stiff, hard seat isn’t the greatest of pleasures for me.  Furthermore, the performance is two hours long without an intermission—no chance to unkink the joints or stretch what pass for muscles.  (There’s a practical reason most intermissionless shows are 90 minutes or less.)  Finally, the space isn’t air-conditioned and the heat builds up in the enclosed, concrete room with thousands of watts of stage lighting burning for a couple of hours.  Within minutes, sweat was dripping down my face and rolling down the back of my neck.  Ick!  (According to one of the Donmar performers acting as a guard when we were leaving, the company doesn’t usually perform in the warm season, but no one expected early October in New York City to be so August-like.  St. Ann’s does have air-conditioning—they turned it on after the play was over—but it’s an industrial system that makes a racket too loud for actors to project over the noise.)  By the time the performance was over, I was so anxious just to stand up, much less leave the room, that I’d begun to phase the play out.  Now, that’s clearly counterproductive.  (I confess that I feel uncomfortable letting physical discomfort affect my response to a theater performance, but I suspect that had I been engaged by the art more, the conditions in the auditorium wouldn’t have weighed so heavily on me.  It’s something of a chicken-and-egg proposition, I guess.)

At this writing, days after the production’s New York opening, not all outlets had run reviews.  (There are quite a few London notices on line, of course, such as the London Times and the Guardian, not to mention the IHT review that ran in the New York Times, but I didn’t comb through them.)  A “high-octane” production “brilliantly directed by Phyllida Lloyd” with “a terrific cast,”  Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post calls the Donmar staging at St Ann’s.  It’s “gripping all the way through, from brutal beginning to bloody end,” the Postwoman declares, but “more than trendy shtick” which all “builds to a coherent theme.”   Also dubbing Lloyd’s JC “gripping,” the Times’s Brantley affirms, “A woman’s touch has not softened the hard and mighty ‘Julius Caesar.’”  The play maintains its “muscular strength and ferocity,” the Times reviewer writes, remarking, “The women playing men here seem poised to challenge the entire audience to put up its dukes—and perhaps to pull out contraband switchblades.  Lloyd’s “crackling troupe,” Brantley says, delivers the Bard’s poetry “with a fiery fluency” under her “ingenious” staging.  In AM New York, Matt Windman reports, “The acting is extraordinary” and the production “is filled with inventive touches.”  Scott Brown calls Donmar’s JCdemonically fun, punk-pugnacious, occasionally unhinged” in his New York magazine review, and affirms that Lloyd’s “ferocious cast quietly underlines [their] point with joyously unquiet performances.”  “Nervous shivers of race and gender domination run just beneath the show’s skin,” says Brown, but the production’s “gender-flip isn’t polemical; it’s clarifying.”  Concluding that “here’s a Caesar that doesn’t even need balls; it’s got gall,” the New York reviewer asserts that Lloyd uses her conception “to thrilling effect here, teasing out the play’s deeper misanthropy, its anti-revolutionary despair and wounded cynicism.”  In Time Out New York, David Cote describes Lloyd’s staging of Julius Caesar as “blisteringly tense and crystalline” and the company as a “fierce ensemble.”  The man from TONY concludes, “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.” 

In the cybersphere, Zachary Stewart writes on TheaterMania that this JC has been “brilliantly reimagined” by Lloyd into “an action-packed, sharp rendition” that “emphasizes the force of personality over the public imagination.”  Stewart’s conclusion is, “It is impossible to walk away from this production without new insights into the original text, which feels as relevant, prescient, and alive as ever.”  On CurtainUp, Deirdre Donovan writes that Lloyd’s transformation of Julius Caesar “ingeniously adds a new twist to the testosterone-laden work.”  It’s “a must-see for Bardolators,” says Donovan, bringing “new meaning to that theatrical phenomenon called ‘double-time’” that “pushes the theatrical envelope, and then some.”  She concludes, “You will be pulled into the action” of “a first-rate director's vision of a Shakespeare play” performed by “a solid ensemble.”  On Huffington Post, which once again ran two notices, David Finkle asserts that Donmar’s prison-set JC  is “all in good, grim fun and works well” and that Lloyd “guarantees that the cast does well.”  But Finkle spotlights “one major, and I mean truly major, drawback”: the Caesar Barber plays and Lloyd directed is “the worse [sic] kind of bully” about whom audiences are likely to say, “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”  This undermines the idea that the dictator’s supporters might indeed be noble (or even entirely rational), weakening the play’s premise.  In Huffington’s other review, Michael Giltz calls Donmar’s Julius Caesar “an exciting new production” that’s simply “the best Julius Caesar I've ever seen” and “certainly one of the top shows of the year.”  Praising the production unsparingly, Giltz goes on to affirm that “the direction is focused and inventive while the performances are clear as a bell, moving and believable at every moment.” 

It was just too much effort to review all the London reviews (and only minimally relevant since I’m not discussing that show), but I have mentioned that the Telegraph gave the show not one, not two, but three bad notices.  Wolf’s IHT review was unfalteringly positive, but as I was surfing the pertinent websites for tidbits of information on the production, I came across a couple of blogs that begged to differ, if you will.  On R3OK, the blogger who calls himself (I’m assuming) HtoHe said bluntly that “whether or not the idea of an all-female Julius Caesar is valid, Phyllida Lloyd’s execution of it was, imo [in my opinion] of course, an unholy mess.”  (The blogger joked that he figured Lloyd had made “a bet that she could put on an all female Julius Caesar and include smoking, swearing and nudity and get half the hacks of the British press to declare it a triumph.”)  Of the basic concept for the Donmar production, HtoHe thought it was “all too embarrassing if, as it seemed to me, the director takes full advantage of the blurring of boundaries to indulge herself—or, being less charitable, to throw all sorts of inconsequential guff into the mix.”  In the end, the blogger summed up: “From the very start, . . . the classic play was used as padding for a prison story that had next to no substance.” 

The blogger Tilly Lunken allowed on her site, Onomatopoeia, that Lloyd places JC in “what appears to be an entirely appropriate context,” but found that the interpretation “does not satisfy because fundamentally it does not address what it arguably should be aiming to—the main drive of the production—the women.”  Lunken, a writer who works mostly in theater, deplored the lack of female characters (there are only two, aside from the prison officers) and asked, “But where were the women?”  Lunken determined that “it appears the entire construct of the women’s prison is just that.  A directorial decision to justify the casting,” or, as the sometime dramaturg put it: “a gimmick.”  Of the prison environment, the blogger said, “It doesn’t hold a mirror to the action, it doesn’t complement the action—it is reduced almost to a container for the action and little more.”  “The key principle of bringing a classical work into a contemporary context,” Lunken, recently accepted onto the Royal Court Young Writer's program, instructed, “is to use the new and working with the existing text create dynamic relationship between the two elements.”  It’s up to theatermakers, the blogger insisted, to “think hard about the implications of a particular setting and casting decision, to work with the politics of this and use them in the work.”  That’s what was missing in the Donmar’s Julius Caesar, as both Lunken and I seem to have felt.   


  1. As Rick has said elsewhere, the play isn't harmed by doing it with various approaches. If you cast "Julius Caesar" with all women... with all men, as Shakespeare did it... with a mixed cast... with penguins... whatever you do, the play will still exist for someone else to work on it. Fortunately.

    1. Hi, Kirk.

      Well, yeah--and I truly believe that. (I did say that I wasn't suggesting not doing the show.) But that doesn't indemnify the production from criticism for wrong-headedness or failure. Even my criticism!

      Besides, I'm just reporting my responses. It's entirely a personal assessment, so I may be wrong. But I may be right!