[not really a REVIEW]: Julius Caesar, Harriet Walter and all-female Shakespeare

The cast of Julius Caesar. Copyright: Helen Maybanks.

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.

(c) Helen Maybanks

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.

Jenny Jules as Cassius. Copyright: Helen Maybanks.

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.

Frances Barber with Carrie Rock. Copyright: Helen Maybanks.

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.

Cush Jumbo as Mark Antony. Copyright: Helen Maybanks.

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?

Copyright: Helen Maybanks.

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?

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I am like the flower of tamarisk that must remain inviolable.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (which also seems to employ most of the RSC’s FOH team!) has announced a Shakespeare Hall of Fame for the Birthday celebrations in April. Twelve names are in, with the thirteenth to be chosen from the poll here. Current inductees are (in chronological order): Ben Jonson, David Garrick, Charles Dickens, Ellen Terry, Laurence Olivier, Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh, Patrick Stewart, Akira Kurosawa, Sam Wanamaker and Paul Robeson. The candidates for the thirteenth place (a competition which the Guardian poll suggests a certain DTennant will win) are: Peter Brook, John Gielgud, Boris Pasternak, Sarah Siddons, Peggy Ashcroft, George Bernard Shaw, Goethe, Sarah Bernhardt, Virginia Woolf and David Tennant himself.

Predictably, this has enraged me.

Firstly, I think it was bloody stupid putting Tennant on the list for thirteenth place, since he will obviously win – far better to have excluded him completely, or just given him a place among the original twelve. I don’t think it’s exactly justifiable when GIELGUD (let me say that again, GIELGUD) and Peggy Ashcroft (PEGGY ASHCROFT) didn’t make the cut, but if bloody Leonardo di Caprio is up there (for a bad performance in a bad film), presumably on grounds of bringing-new-audience-to-Shakespeare, then David Tennant (who, you know, is a much better actor and encouraged lots of people who’d only come to see HIM in Hamlet to book again, to read another play) should definitely be included. More importantly, if Patrick Stewart is in there, Harriet Walter should be too (this is perhaps a not entirely unexpected conclusion for me to draw. Harriet! Look at her beautiful face).

Secondly, my list would also only stick to theatre practitioners (there could be a separate list for writers & academics), partly because I am biased (Shakespeare wrote plays, not books) and partly because there are just too many good actors and directors. So out with Dickens (why is he even there?) and Woolf, and in with Brook, and either Ashcroft or Gielgud (and why Jonson? Why Jonson?). Given the location of the exhibition (Stratford-on-Avon), the Trust’s failure to include either Michael Boyd or Greg Doran seems, to me, a little misguided. The achievement of both is comparable to that of Wanamaker, arguably – but then, living in Stratford and not Southwark, I would say that. I don’t begrudge Wanamaker his place (unlike bloody di Caprio) but Boyd and Doran deserve as much recognition as he does.

I think it would almost have been better  just to put ‘the RSC’ as one of the items, or to make a separate RSC Hall of Fame (Jon Slinger, Alexandra Gilbreath, Anton Lesser, Juliet Stevenson, Alan Rickman, David Suchet, Chuk Iwuji, Clive Wood, Ian Richardson, Donald Sinden, Trevor Nunn – oh my goodness, Trevor Nunn‘s not on there, Fiona Shaw oh my goodness she’s not on there…). I voted for Ashcroft, although Shaw (even if Shaw had never written a line of drama, I’d break my own rules for his rehabilitation of lovely Helena, whom even Ellen Terry hated) or Brook would do.

On a far less infuriating note, have another Shakespeare link; hilarious version of the 25 facts meme that’s been going round Facebook et al: Five And Twenty Random Things Abovt Me. It sounds awful, it’s not. It’s the cure for what ails you, seriously. Also lovely – a post Jenny showed me summarising a medievalist’s reading on ‘how to write love letters in the fourteenth century: The Rules’ – I am like the flower of tamarisk that must remain inviolable. Yet again this afternoon I had a brief burst of why am I not studying Shakespeare more than I already am.

Have also added two blogs to the blogroll (Eat Your Sherbert and The Jenny Times). The former is (awesome, rational) feminism (Katy and I divided feminisms into four sorts on Saturday – radical, woolly, nice and useless) and music reviews, the second is (one of the four) best friend(s) a girl could possibly ask for. My love for her manages to transcend her beauty, intelligence & talent (which is pretty much a pattern with them), which in anybody else would sicken me.