For the London-based Donmar company’s JULIUS CAESAR at St. Ann’s Warehouse, we are herded into, and, two-and-a-half hours later, released from a place of mock confinement.
Initially, we are retained in a holding room, between a door that has rolled down behind us and one ahead of us that has yet to open. One looks for fire exits, perhaps; or, if one is a claustrophobe, there may be a moment of panic. Notices on the walls explain that we are entering a prison and must obey certain rules, no cell phones, etc., which are not all that different from the regulations at the average New York theater. The ushers, dressed as guards, are all women, and after a reiteration of the rules, along with directions to the restrooms (there is no intermission), the door opens on the auditorium. Our role is, frankly, unclear: are we supposed to be newly arrived detainees, and, if so, how to explain the men among us, as we seem to be entering a women’s prison? If, moreover, a critique of the penal system or of the surveillance society is intended, the enjoyability of the setup would be a problem: what’s not to like about playacting jailbirds for a couple of hours?
Only as the show unfolds does it become clear that we are not ourselves supposed to be prisoners, but the audience for a production of Shakespeare’s play by a group of female inmates. Now and then something happens to confirm this – an actor dragged off by a guard, or a fight being broken up, or spotlights doubling as searchlights. Some of the more exploitative clichés of the setting are fulfilled by the stray homoerotic overtone, and the cast proves that women can play the male roles of Shakespeare as well as men. It is, however, interesting that what transpires is mostly sex and gender neutral, a drama of personal relationships in the context of a struggle for power, with a special emphasis on the limitations of the central character.
Brutus has always been a problematic protagonist; the conspirators need him to legitimate their assassination of Caesar, but every decision he makes is inept and misguided. He brings little of value to the plotters beyond the honorable intention with which Antony taunts him in the funeral oration that he, himself, has foolishly allowed to be delivered. Harriet Walter makes Brutus suitably ineffectual, perhaps to a fault, since Jenny Jules as Cassius is so strong and charismatic as to make a lie of the “lean and hungry look” that Frances Barber’s Caesar attributes to her; the description is more applicable to Walter’s Brutus. Despite this imbalance (Jules’ Cassius needs no Brutus to overcome Caesar and take power), Phyllida Lloyd has directed a version of the play that would demand attention even without the confinement of the audience. It is culturally interesting, unisexual yet multiethnic, with magnetic performances by both Jules and, as Antony, Cush Jumbo. The time passes quickly, such that one would not have minded staying inside for a little while longer.