Review: “Julius Caesar” at the Donmar Theatre

JULIUS CAESAR at the Donmar

Prompt: Choose 1 character or one theme/idea from JULIUS CAESAR and discuss how that character or idea was changed or shaped by the fact that all the roles were played by women.

Director Phyllida Lloyd’s conceptual production of “Julius Caesar” transposes Shakespeare’s words into the confines of a women’s prison. This production, however, is a play within a play, where the actors are not themselves Julius Caesar or Brutus, but are rather inmates in the prison putting on their own production out of the materials they have available to them—some minor costume pieces, red gloves, a few instruments, and, of course, a script or two. While the production was well acted and quite engaging, in many ways, I believe the Donmar’s production was not changed or shaped by the fact that all roles were played by women as much as it could have been.  In brief, I left feeling that something was missing from this particular concept—namely, oddly enough, a strong commentary on gender.

Admittedly, when I entered the Donmar, I was expecting a production of “Julius Caesar” in which all characters, whether Caesar or Portia, were female, not just the actors playing them. This idea excited me because to put on an all-woman’s production of any Shakespeare play in this way would be no easy task in any scenario, considering the wealth of male characters as opposed to female characters. I hoped to see a production that commented on the power struggles that might exist in a community of all-women, and the differences that might appear as compared to a male-dominant society like Rome in “Julius Caesar.” Of course, in retrospect, I realized the intricacy and specificity of the text is enough to give any director a headache, and would in many circumstances beg some script changes or some master-minded combination of director and audience to convey the storyline effectively.

In this regard, this interpretation of “Julius Caesar” as “What if the inmates of women’s prison were putting on a production?” was valid and interesting. However, in many ways, I feel as if the director could have gone further in the subtext of the show, inviting the audience more into the world of the prison and the existence of those taking on the roles of Shakespeare’s characters. Although there were a few very brief periods when the show was “paused” and character’s “broken” (for example, when the Soothsayer’s character was called out to take her medication, or when the inmate playing Caesar shouted at the others for talking backstage), these moments only gave brief glimpses into the true-lives of the inmates, leaving me thirsty for more.

My thirst remained unquenched by the end of the production, though, even with the emotional response of the inmate playing Brutus to her inability to complete the production before she was called back to her cell. This response, however, I attributed not to gender, but to the loss of the escapism she achieved by existing in the world of the play. By showing more characterization of the women playing the characters in “Julius Caesar,” the show could have stretched further in its commentary on gender, and also potentially in the exploration of the themes of power, loyalty, and manipulation particularly in an all-female society.  Rather, in this production, some women were merely portraying men—physically and vocally—while other women were portraying women.

I longed to see the relationships between the inmate-actors within the subtext of Donmar’s production and to discover if any power dynamics hid between the women in the prison. While the production started to graze the surface of this—for example, the inmate playing Caesar seemed to be the director/leader, (as she was the one that said “Give her the script. Keep going,” “take it from the—“, etc.) and meanwhile, the woman that was the “understudy” for the Soothsayer’s role seemed to be more subordinate—I wanted to know more about how the inmate got to be Caesar, why no one cared so much when the insubordinate got a nosebleed, and finally, to what extent the passion between the women playing lovers was real or feigned. For example, at the very beginning of the production, a choice was made to have the inmate playing Caesar and the inmate playing Mark Antony kiss passionately. The choice seemed unclear because I could not tell if the inmates were kissing or if Caesar was kissing Antony. Had these kind of subtextual character dynamics been continued throughout the play, the show would have been more satisfyingly complex and intellectually stimulating than the Donmar’s ultimate production, and a deeper commentary on the significance of on all-female could have been made.

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