Julius Cesar - Donmar Warehouse

Phyllida Law's all-female production of Shakespeare's Julius Cesar made a big impression. From the opening scene, full of potent power as Cesar (Frances Barber) emerges, and followed by her coterie of acolytes. These women, dressed in the garb of the contemporary prisoner - grey joggers and black Reebok Classics - filed onto the stage with the lopsided simian swagger of the street. I made the mistake - or perhaps not - of reading a few reviews beforehand, a few main ones being lukewarm, which readied me with lower expectations. One national declared the all-female cast couldn't compete with the (innate) power of the male performers for whom Shakespeare would have had to write. To which I can now say 'utter bollocks'.

Julius Cesar: power, ambition.

These are not - essentially at least, if not culturally - the exclusive domains of men. This production ripped down the veil of reverence that the overwhelmingly male dominated crews, canons and cultured crowds have held over Shakespeare through the years. A dusty patriarchal inheritance from the Victorian era.

But Shakespeare was not about reverence.

He wrote his plays to be performed for pennies in front of pits of bun throwing drunks. And when he wasn't doing that he was writing beyond the Elizabethan censors - not for them.

This production stops about half way through, openly revealing itself as meta-Shakespeare - a bit like when Charlotte Bronte stops Jane Eyre's story to address the reader. It is, then, a performance also about performing Shakespeare. And in many ways. Intertextuality is rife. Just like Shakespeare. It veers off the young main drag towards the mash-up. And succeeds. It goes from the blades to the machine guns to the pistols. And from techno to something sounding like heavy metal to a lone harmonica behind an imaginary camp fire. Shakespeare, Law seems to be saying, can be anywhere. And everywhere. Most of all, in a women's prison, where who makes Queen B is a matter of life and death; honour, even.
The only thing that struck me as perhaps taking it one step up the radical ladder would be to have feminised the language. She for he. Cesar as woman; Brutus, all. I feel it would have rendered that step closer to what most women know to be the power within themselves. I don't mean the power as realised - but the power that is aspired to in the vengeance we cook up as surely and as detailed as any war-time strategist man is capable of.
The performances were brilliant. Frances Barber owned her status and prisoner attire. But Ishia Benson as Casca stood out, a Yorkshire accent bringing the dialogue a greater degree of vitality than one would expect.

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