Long-time readers will know that Harriet Walter is not irrelevant to my interests. I have purchased a certain number of theatre tickets in order to see her perform. I have a certain degree of familiarity with her first book, Other People’s Shoes. She was central to Clamorous Voices, the book after which this blog was named, and she appears in my thesis more than is seemly or subtle for a work that’s supposedly about the nineteenth century. I think she’s the most perfect actress of her generation, I hope to God I’m never called upon to be articulate in her presence, and I have still not forgiven the Queen for making Helen Mirren a Dame first.
For these reasons, I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to review Julius Caesar. Not in a balanced way, or even a way that manages to eschew capital letters and superlatives. Harriet Walter plays Brutus, which automatically precludes all chance of a review that doesn’t devolve into my myriad feelings and/or an anecdote about the time my friend Charlie and I (both then aged sixteen) spent half an hour in a biting wind outside the old RST, so that Walter could sign our programmes for (I think) The Hollow Crown.*
Frances Barber plays Julius Caesar. This is also bad news for my sang-froid. Walter may have played Fanny Dashwood, Lady Macbeth, and Harriet Vane, but Barber played the Bolter and the first Shakespearean heroine I ever saw. She was an Edwardian Viola in the snowy Twelfth Night that may not be as good as I remember it, but the fact is that my six-year-old self fell simultaneously in love with her and Anton Lesser. As Feste, Lesser had ringlets and eyeliner; Barber had a waistcoat. I didn’t know which one I more wanted to be.
So, then, when I found myself in the front row of Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse, watching Barber, Walter, and a monstrous regiment of miraculous women turn Julius Caesar into a mashup of Shakespeare, Sarah Kane, Bad Girls, Chicago and Our Country’s Good, I asked myself a question. Am I going to review this production in a careful, analytical, balanced manner, soberly locating the play in its aesthetic, historical and dramaturgical contexts? Shall I make solemn interrogation of the directorial choices, and cast a cool eye over the production’s lasting influence, and longevity? If you should never meet your idols, you probably shouldn’t review them, either.
This is not a production to be solemn or cautious about. This is a production which demands you enter its world; a women’s prison wing, where the inmates are performing – and in some cases living – Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Until now, Julius Caesar is a play I’ve actually preferred to read rather than see, which is a) anathema to everything else I feel about Shakespeare, and b) a direct result of the play having almost no women, and going on about war for too long.
This production’s play-within-a-play conceit interrupts Shakespeare’s action with the inevitabilities of the prison day. Med checks and lockdowns tear up the script, daring to put modern-day swearing next to Roman rhetoric. But deliberately breaking this suspension of disbelief only makes the Shakespeare more real, as the play becomes increasingly important to the prisoners, racing to complete their performance before they’re returned to their cells.
At its quietest – as when Brutus, played with ravaged elegance by Walter, tells Jenny Jules (a highly flammable young Cassius, all-consuming as the military leader) of Portia’s death – the Donmar production is tender, understated and mesmeric. In exhilarating contrast, the play’s battles become a cross between a riot and a 90s video nasty, with chaotic sequences of lights, drums, and drugged-out dancing.
It’s so rare to see a show that feels so dynamic and experimental, headed by actors who also speak verse with virtuosic ease. Walter and Barber are, as expected, marvellous. Barber, in particular, can slide from sublime poetry to sounding like the Missing Mitchell Sister without missing a single Shakespearian beat. Two of the supporting cast, Carrie Rock (Soothsayer) and Jen Joseph (Trebonius) are alumnae of Clean Break theatre company. Clean Break exists both to stage the experiences of imprisoned women (via award-winning plays), and empower women who are at risk of offending, or who already have experience of the criminal justice system, via theatre-based educational courses.
Both Rock and Joseph gave excellent performances; Rock’s disturbed, too-knowing child has stayed in my mind ever since. Both Rock and Joseph speak blank verse as though it’s not only instinctive, but imperative; that their characters cannot and must not be expressed in any other way. The total absence of anything unnatural – stagey hangups, theatrical tics – meant that they never seemed to be acting. Ironically, Joseph’s overwhelmingly warm stage presence (tell me the name of Trebonius in any production you’ve ever seen) also meant that I assumed I was watching someone who was already very famous, as opposed to someone who merely deserved to be.
The joy of single-sex Shakespeare lies in creating amazing and unanticipated combinations of actors and roles. Without cross-casting, Cush Jumbo’s performance as Mark Antony would never have existed; Jen Joseph would have been no more likely to play Trebonius than Mark Rylance was to play Olivia.
But one of the most challenging and unsettling things about all-female Shakespeare is that it tips the audience into a world where femininity, not masculinity is the default setting. All-male Shakespeare has the simultaneous advantages of historical justification and novelty. Notions of authenticity and original practice legitimise all-male productions, offering us a glimpse of a history that’s sufficiently distant to make the all-male theatrical event unusual. All-male Shakespeare is affirmed and celebrated where other aspects of “original” performance – the cavalier addition of togas to Elizabethan dress, for example – are largely discarded; nor has the modern Globe begun casting pre-pubescent Juliets. I’m not disparaging any of this; productions like Mark Rylance’s Richard II make theatre far richer. Sometimes the consequences veer towards pantomime, as when the (sorely-missed) Peter Shorey’s Duchess of York harangued Liam Brennan’s Henry IV in the BBC’s 2003 broadcast of Rylance’s Globe show. But that merely shows how Shakespeare thrives on the broadest comedy – else why send Falstaff into a laundry basket, then change him to the Fat Woman of Brentford?
The history of all-female Shakespeare, meanwhile, is the histories of girls’ schools and women’s colleges; organisations like the Mothers’ Union and the Women’s Institute; women’s prisons, and private reading circles from the eighteenth- to the twenty-first century. These may not be traditional arenas for academic attention, but they are – I hope – attracting more and more work from scholars. I’d love to know about Shakespeare as read and performed by all kinds of female groups: Shakespeare by and for landgirls, Shakespeare by nuns (did he make it into convents, or only convent schools?), Shakespeare in nursing schools (back when nursing was a female profession). The final chapter of my thesis is about Shakespeare and the suffragettes – the chapter of my thesis that most excited me, and one which (happily) other people seem to find exciting as well – but I’d love to know more about different, all-female groups. Tangentially, I really regret not seeing the RSC’s partially cross-cast King John last year, because it might have addressed my unease regarding partially cross-cast Shakespeares; I’ve yet to see one that seemed truly successful.
On Monday, the Donmar will release its last Barclays Front Row tickets for the run. While wary of schemes that force people to jump through hoops to get affordable tickets, Barclays Front Row is infinitely better than day-tickets, London-only tickets, or ostensibly benevolent schemes that use young theatregoers to fill unsellable seats. I hope everyone reading this gets a ticket. I hope I’m successful for a second time. If we’re there together, say hello. I really loved this production; I hope you get a chance to do so.**
*Charlie and I could also give a deeply moving rendition of the final seconds of Greg Doran’s The Taming of the Shrew, with both of us simultaneously playing both Alexandra Gilbreath and Jasper Britton at the moment of “My hand is ready; may it do him ease”. I want you to really imagine two schoolgirls, each one of whom is trying to be two Shakespearean actors at once (while providing very loud commentary on how brilliant they were). Charlie is now a professional actress (in fact she’s Charlie Ryall), but sticks to being one person at a time.
**Film version, anyone?
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.