Straight review: The stars allign to produce one of my favourite plays of the year
What to expect from an all female production of Julius Caesar

Review: Brash and bold it's girls behaving badly in Julius Caesar @DonmarWarehouse

8085_fullI've seen plenty of all male Shakespeare productions but never an all female and I'm not sure what I was expecting, except that is wasn't going to be an ordinary production.

And it certainly wasn't ordinary. The Donmar's auditorium has been stripped back to the walls and floor. The stage is at foot level of the front row and the padded bench seats have been replaced, in the stalls at least, with chairs I last saw in school assembly.

There are a couple of metal platforms across the back wall reached by metal steps and TV monitors with split screens show CCTV footage of corridors along which you occasionally see people walking or running. It is industrial and institutional in tone and reminded me a little of the Young Vic's Hamlet with Michael Sheen last year but whereas that was a mental hospital this is a prison.

*Production spoilers alert* The setting is a hint that this is going to be far from stereotypically feminine. If the boys can do it loud and brash in a banging metal food trays against metal railings kind of way then the girls can too (I've never heard such noises murders).

The actors burst onto the stage in prison regulation track suits, 'Caesar' (Frances Barber) is greeted with a contemporary song, muscular choreography and gestures, all her followers creepily wearing masks of her face. The fateful 'Ides of March' speech is delivered as a horoscope from Heat magazine and for a moment I thought it was going to be an adaptation rather than the bards words.

But the production soon settles into Shakespeare's language telling the tale of the overthrow of Caesar who's rise to power has been through dubious means and the subsequent fall of those that engineered his demise.

And for a while, quite a while, the prison setting faded into the background until about two thirds the way through - it's 2 hours without interval - when Shakespeare's characters become prisoners again. It's a brief scene, when the mob turn on Cinna the Poet, which has gone a bit wrong and needs to be re-enacted by the prisoners. 

It was problematic for me because it was only then that the penny dropped that the central theatrical device is that this is essentially a very big play within a smaller one but it jolted. I'd kind of forgotten they were prisoners, it was mere back drop, the mail trolley wasn't a mail trolley it was a chariot or some other ancient vehicle, I was too drawn into the Julius Caesar Julius Caesar rather than the prisoners Julius Caesar. 

However, the ending or rather the method of the ending, which I won't reveal, does redeem it as a device and all is almost forgotten.

My other grumble is that for a female cast and director it felt like it was trying too hard to be masculine. One character is seen reading a porn magazine, for example, and its sound track - played by various cast members - is mainly very muscular rock music. It's not that I've got anything against rock, have a lot in my music collection, it just felt a bit obvious.

If the overt masculinity was supposed to be ironic then I must have missed the cue. There is a whole blog post of thoughts I have on this topic and one I'll add to my 'to write' list.

Putting grumbles aside thought I did very much enjoy this production. The cast, a mix of seasoned performers like Barber and Harriet Walter (Brutus) and younger blood - Cush Jumbo as Mark Anthony and Jenny Jules as Cassius - made for a wonderful dynamic and their performances had great clarity and purpose.

There was a great energy throughout and one male audience member got a little bit of a surprise and an unexpected view, as did those sat in the middle of the stalls front row and those just behind. All I'll say is it's about as close to the action as you can get and not something I've ever seen done before. There is also nice use of live video footage which is beamed to the TV screens and the cast take on other 'production' roles manning spotlights for example.

This isn't a Shakespeare production where you necessarily examine the intricacies of Shakespeare's characters and plot, this is Shakespeare of spectacle and theatrical devices where you sit waiting to see what they might do next. It's not perfect but certainly didn't disappoint, this is a production you talk about and remember for good and bad.

Julius Caesar runs at the Donmar Warehouse until February 9.


A couple of second degree connections. Frances Barber was in Madame de Sade with Judi Dench which whom Mr W has 'done' Skyfall and next year they'll be on stage together too. Then there is Harriet Walter who was in Atonement with Romola Garai who of course co-stars in The Hour with Mr W.