Julius Caesar

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Harriet Walter as Brutus in Julius Caesar
"This play - and this production - belongs to Brutus, however, played by Harriet Walter with a distilled ferocity that brings some of Ian McKellen's best Shakespearean work to mind."

Rather than try to hide the fact that this is a filmed version of the Donmar production of Julius Caesar, director Phyllida Lloyd makes a virtue of it, breaking the fourth wall to excellent effect at key moments and layering on the possibilities. This, in any event, is not a straightforward adaptation. All the roles are played by women and the play is framed as a production being performed by the convicts in a female prison - a scenario developed in collaboration with Clean Break theatre group, a charity which works with women who have experienced the criminal justice system to help improve their skills. This adds further dimensions to Shakespeare's tragedy about honour, rebellion, friendship and betrayal - themes that apply just as appropriately to those who are incarcerated.

Things get off to a high-energy start, with the prisoners being led onto the stage by guards, who will appear at crucial moments throughout the production, for example, intervening when things get too rough. Plus, there are other reminders of the modern setting, such as when the soothsayer producing the astrology pages of a magazine to warn Caesar to "beware the ides of March". A neat trick that plays well into his response that, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings." This idea of subjects rising up, along with shifting allegiances, is greatly reinforced by the jail's authoritarian backdrop.

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Caesar is played with convincing swagger by Jackie Clune, as a prison queen bee who easily slips on the mantle of majesty and meets an end that evokes the potential brutality for those living behind bars. This play - and this production - belongs to Brutus, however, played by Harriet Walter with a distilled ferocity that brings some of Ian McKellen's best Shakespearean work to mind. Through good camera choices, Lloyd brings us close enough to Walter to feel the tang of sweat and doubt. There is power to Walter's representation but also an acute underlying pain of the sort more commonly associated with Hamlet. The cast - including Karen Dunbar and Jennifer Joseph as co-conspirators Casca and Trebonius - are generous with one another and uniformly strong.

Lloyd knows when to close in on a speech, and there is good use of GoPro camerawork, to give a cinema viewer an angle that an audience - even in the round - is not privy to. The physicality of the production is also emphasised, never more so than when a drum kit is assembled as part of the action or when mob violence breaks out. The all-woman decision is not simply a gimmick - although in return for the chance to see this level of female performance, even if it was, it would be welcome. But, as with all-male castings of Shakespeare, the choice helps to bring a fresh consideration to the gender roles, particularly that of Portia (Clare Dunne, who also takes on the contrasting role of the violent Octavius Caesar), somehow made even more vulnerable in comparison to those around her.

The other elements that come to the fore in this production, and which are enhanced by the filming, are a sense of futility and of things never quite being finished. This, like so much in Lloyd's version, has a double resonance, both calling to mind what seem to be the never-ending conflict in parts of the modern world and the position of prisoners, particularly women, who thanks to factors that frequently include violence, often find it hard to break back into society.

Reviewed on: 12 Jul 2017
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All-female adaptation of the play, set in a women's prison.

Director: Phyllida Lloyd

Writer: William Shakespeare

Starring: Harriet Walter, Jenny Jules, Jade Anouka

Year: 2017

Runtime: 116 minutes

Country: UK

Festivals:

EIFF 2017

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