Watching my first all female Shakespeare this week - Julius Caesar at the Donmar - was an illuminating experience. Primarily because I went in with few conscious expectations but the experience raised so many questions in my mind that subconsciously I must have certain expectations.
When all-male companies do Shakespeare it adds an extra level of humour to the comedies – men in women's clothing is amusing – for the tragedies and histories it depends on how it is played. I’ve been moved to tears by a male actor playing Gertrude in Hamlet and I’ve seen a Richard III where Richard was camper than the female characters.
A question then, is whether the gender swap is part of the performance or whether the actor is merely a vessel for the character?
Does this then make the at times overtly masculine production ironic? I'm talking about butch, aggressive behaviour, loud, brash music - drum and electric guitar heavy - and porn mag-reading characters.
It could be explained by the prison setting, I couldn't help thinking of the hard as nails female inmates as portrayed in dramas such Bad Girls. Certainly the scene where Cinna the poet is bashed a little too convincingly and the play within the play is halted for a moment would indicate so.
And this is where it blurs a little for me. At the time I was watching the play - which I very much enjoyed - I did feel that it was trying a little too hard to be masculine but I certainly wasn't expecting, nor would I have wanted to see anything overtly feminine. What then was I expecting?
Is it the women prisoners acting in a way they think men will act? I have never seen quite such a brutal - albeit bloodless - and noisy murder on stage. If it wasn't for the central performances which were in the main more restrained and considered to the point where all the prisoner stuff was forgotten, I would say yes.
We should have more all female productions of Shakespeare - ironically Fiona Shaw who played Richard II in 1995 was sat in the row in front - not least to explore a 180 degree spin on what we have become so familiar with.
Julius Caesar runs at the Donmar Warehouse until February 9.