Caesar Sisters

Julius Caesar, Donmar Warehouse, 21 December 2012

Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female production was set in a women’s prison with the inmates staging Julius Caesar more or less as a play within a play. This decision was astute.

As of March 2012, 4.8% of the UK prison population were women. Crime leading to imprisonment is overwhelmingly a male preserve.

We perceive women prisoners, therefore, as females who have adopted an essentially male social role, that of the criminal. It is relatively easy, then, to accept these particular women when they adopt specifically male roles in a play like Julius Caesar.

The outer frame of the production thereby legitimised the adoption of male roles by its female cast. Had the production been set at a WI meeting in a village hall, then the impact would have been different.

The reconfigured interior of the Donmar suggested a prison recreation room. Gone were the benches and raised stage. The audience sat on the same grey plastic chairs used by the cast. In the stage left corner were seats and a television, in the other a scruffy sofa. Two levels of walkway ran above with steps down at the centre. The walls were covered in faded, peeling paint, mired with what seemed years of dirty stains.

The performance began with the prisoners being admitted through a stage right side door by uniformed female guards. They stood in a line and then some went up onto the gantry.

The stage went dark as the youthful funster Mark Antony (Cush Jumbo) up on the gantry began singing When You Walk In The Room by Jackie DeShannon to a short figure with her back to us, who swayed from side to side in time with the song.

As the song reached the words “walk in the room” the lights went up and the rest of the prisoners joined in shouting the phrase as a chorus, before cheering the woman who we could now see was the rotund Julius Caesar (Frances Barber). She wore a dark coat and a beret.

She was greeted by shouts of acclaim and Italian Job style tray banging. She handed out masks of her own face, which the others donned for an exercise session. Caesar proceeded to lead the inmates in a form of aerobics, directing their movements from the gantry while the onstage band played a pumping accompaniment.

The first scene was cut and not even paraphrased. But the second had some of its action paraphrased into modern English. Caesar, still on the gantry, hugged and kissed Mark Antony.

The Soothsayer (Carrie Rock), a simple woman in a tutu who constantly clutched a child’s doll, approached Caesar, prompting her to say “Not much has changed here then”. As the strange woman drew closer, Caesar ordered her informal guard to “let her through”. The Soothsayer pointed at the horoscope in Heat magazine ominously warning “Beware the Ides of March”.

Caesar mockingly read the magazine’s horoscope: “Libra*. You will have an opportunity to show leadership skills, but be careful to tone down your feisty nature as you might offend others. You will experience an upturn in your love life. [oohs from inmates] If you receive an invitation, beware the Ides of March. You will feel much freer than you did during the last moon cycle”. Caesar emphasised “moon cycle” pointing to her nether regions and dismissed the Soothsayer’s warning with “You’re off your base”.

Turning to the others, Caesar said the harbinger of doom was away with the fairies, telling her to “jog on and take Tiny Tears with you”. “Jog on” was an apt phrase because it also occurs in an Autolycus song in The Winter’s Tale.

Caesar joined the other prisoners at a card table in the stage left corner platform at the end of the gantry, which went silent and dark.

Brutus (Harriet Walter) and Cassius (Jenny Jules) entered below, both wearing military greatcoats for their initial conversation. At this point, the prison setting melted into the background and we were presented with the tension of the situation and a beautiful rendering of the language, with the focus very much on the excellent performances of Jenny Jules and Harriet Walter.

Brutus had slicked-back hair, which together with her stark features made her reminiscent of a young David Bowie. She was lean and wiry with a keen intelligence that made her nervously aware of the pervasive menace of the prison environment.

Cassius seemed similarly troubled, but exuded a resigned fatalism that made her seem calmer.

Brutus made a veiled comment on the opening aerobics session. When she said “I do lack some part of that quick spirit that is in Antony”, she accompanied the words “quick spirit” with the arm pumping motion the participants had employed.

Cassius still had a Caesar mask, but looked at it contemptuously and screwed it up when saying “… and this man is now become a god”.

Their conversation was punctuated by shouts from the card table above, which reminded us of Caesar, the other prisoners and the overall setting.

Doughnuts

Caesar descended the gantry stairs carrying a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. She put the box on the table and opened it with a flourish, saying “Let me have men about me that are fat”.

As the others fell upon the doughnuts, Caesar belittled the lean and hungry Cassius saying that she “Looks quite through the deeds of men”, which Caesar comically illustrated by spying through the hole in a doughnut.

Cassius ended up sat in a chair as Caesar stuffed a doughnut into her mouth and then bit off the protruding part. This was an exercise in dominance, effectively demonstrating who was top bitch on the landing. She rounded this off with a bold gesture saying “For always I am Caesar”.

Caesar and her party retired to watch television in the corner as Brutus and Cassius sat round the table to play cards. Casca (Ishia Bennison) told them about the crown offered to Caesar. Cassius shot up from the table, very animated, when talking of “the falling sickness” she accused them all of suffering from. She was then left alone to ponder how to win Brutus over to the conspiracy.

A detail from 1.3 in which Casca said that the senators wanted to offer Caesar a crown the next day was included in her dialogue in 1.2 so that 1.3 could be cut.

As Brutus relaxed at home, a taper and an almanac were brought at her request (2.1). A letter folded into a paper aeroplane was thrown down from the gantry by a shadowy figure. Soon after the balaclavaed conspirators arrived. Brutus and Cassius whispered in the centre in silence, but there was no comment about day break as the character of Decius Brutus was cut.

As the conspiracy was forged, and the others crouched to join hands, Brutus objected to them all swearing an oath. She similarly advised against killing Mark Antony. Her insistent demands were made in all sincerity, with no trace of false, bullying bravado. In general, this Brutus was not characterised as a fool.

In the absence of the character of Decius Brutus, Casca took over the role of persuading Caesar to attend the Senate.

The conspirators departed leaving Brutus to cope with his wife Portia’s (Clare Dunne) demands for an explanation of Brutus’ odd behaviour. Portia was a womanly red head in early pregnancy, her “weak condition”, and spoke with a Southern Irish accent.

Brutus did not respond to her plead “Tell me your counsels”. She paused and then drew a dagger and stabbed herself in the leg, inflicting the “voluntary wound”, rather than pointing to a prior injury. She acted impulsively as if in immediate frustration at being ignored. The end of the scene with Ligarius was cut.

The action returned to Caesar’s house where a woman in a harness ran in barking like a dog and yelped at Caesar, then shivered as if afraid before being pulled away on a leash (2.2). This strange animal behaviour hinted at the disturbances in the wider world described by Calphurnia (Jade Anouka).

Caesar, still in coat and beret, ordered animal sacrifices to be made and the entrails to be read. The servant (Irene Ketikidi) returned and delivered the results in Greek, which Caesar translated, swapping the text’s “you” for “me”, announcing that she had been advised to stay at home.

Caesar was irritated at the pessimistic auguries and defiantly said she would go forth. Calphurnia crouched on the ground, now wearing a scarf on her head, to plead with Caesar, who relented and said she would remain at home solely to please her.

Casca tried to encourage Caesar to venture out. On being informed of Calphurnia’s dream, Casca offered a different, flattering interpretation. Caesar stood facing away from Casca, and when the conspirator also mentioned the crown to be offered to Caesar, the eyes of the would-be monarch flickered with renewed interest.

Falling for Casca’s trap, Caesar now airily dismissed Calphurnia’s silly premonitions and resolved to go to the Senate. The others came to fetch her, led by Cassius rather than the text’s Publius.

Caesar froze in a power gesture as the conspirators gathered around her (2.3). The Soothsayer descended from the gantry and, speaking her own letter, wandered among them pointing and warning about the individuals who posed a threat to Caesar.

Despite being pregnant, Portia smoked as she issued her confused instructions to Lucius (Charlotte Josephine) (2.4). The Soothsayer provided an update on Caesar’s movements while cycling around Portia on her child’s tricycle.

Portia’s “How weak a thing the heart of woman is!” took on an ironic tinge, coming from a woman portraying a woman in a production where most of the women were playing men.

Caesar arrived at the Senate, wheeled in on a trolley by the others wearing Caesar masks, to the sound of pumping rock music (2.5). She held her clenched fist raised above her head and once stationary was given a doll, representing a baby, to kiss.

The Soothsayer appeared on her tricycle again just as Caesar confidently announced that “The ides of March are come” (3.1). As the Soothsayer passed in front, she added a crucial caveat to Caesar’s assurance: “Ay, Caesar; but not gone”, before disappearing offstage.

The others took off their Caesar masks and a paper crown in a translucent storage box was produced, ready to be presented to Caesar. A siren briefly sounded as a dramatic effect when the lid was removed from the box to display its contents.

The Senate proceedings began as Mark Antony escorted the occupant of seat A21, the centre of the front row stalls, and parked them on a plastic chair on the stage next to Brutus. This allowed Caesar to occupy that seat, nestled among the audience, to hear the suits being presented.

Rejecting Mettelus Cimber’s (Jade Anouka again) petition, Caesar rose to proclaim herself as “constant as the northern star”. After Caesar retook her seat, Casca moved behind the front row, stepping over the feet of those in the second row.

At “Speak hands for me” Casca pinned Caesar into the seat while a Domestos bleach bottle was thrust into her mouth. This was filmed by a hand-held camera and displayed on monitors to make the action visible to all parts of auditorium.

The others moved in to stab her with lath daggers. This was done within the staging restrictions of the prison setting and consequently without stage blood.

Brutus struck last, her expression one real regret as she drove in her blade. Caesar collapsed out of the chair, gasping on the ground. Brutus followed and held on to her with a look of shock and horror, but Caesar spat in her face and grasped her shirt as she spoke her dying words “et tu Brute? Then fall Caesar”.

Shreds

Cinna (Carolina Valdés) proclaimed “Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!” and tore to shreds the paper crown that had symbolised Caesar’s regal ambitions.

The conspirators gradually donned red gloves that represented the staining caused by dipping their hands in Caesar’s blood.

Antony arrived directly, unheralded by a servant, to confront Caesar’s killers. She greeted and shook hands with them individually. At the end of this, she had put on a single red glove (which she had concealed in a pocket) that represented the blood that had rubbed off from the conspirators’ hands onto her own.

Brutus agreed to Antony’s request to speak at Caesar’s funeral, prompting a quite comic version of “Brutus, a word with you” from a concerned Cassius.

Antony noticed the glove, symbolically representing her blood-stained hand, and removed it as she crouched to hug Caesar, “thou bleeding piece of earth”. She was thus literally leaning over Caesar’s wounds when she prophesied Caesar’s revenge and the letting loose of the “dogs of war”, pointing offstage as if witnessing the reality of her prophesy.

The stage cleared and Brutus stood amid a throng of citizens who rushed back and forth ignoring her as she started to speak (3.2). One by one they stopped and started to listen. Harriet Walter made the oratory sound extremely powerful. Caesar’s body was not produced.

Brutus was carried aloft by a now cheering crowd, then dropped beneath the sea of heads that surrounded her. The crowd dispersed, and by deft sleight of hand, revealed not Brutus but Antony lying face down on the ground.

At first the suspicious crowd, swayed by Brutus’ oratory, pointed accusing guns at Antony as she began her speech. She lay prone as if surrendered to their anger, but as her funeral speech gathered pace, she gradually rose from ground and the crowd’s guns lowered, allowing her to continue.

Antony paused during her speech to recover at which point the others went off to watch on the television. The crowd called on Antony to read Caesar’s will by shouting at the television.

The “If you have tears” section was accompanied by a chorus singing sustained chords which musically enhanced the emotions being stirred by the oratory.

Antony retrieved Caesar’s coat and held it aloft from behind, pointing to the cuts made by the conspirators’ blades. Someone acting as Caesar backed into the coat from behind, put it on and collapsed to the ground at Antony’s feet to represent Caesar’s dead body. This “appearance” by a figure representing Caesar was the first indication of her continued controlling presence in the second half of play.

Still facing the audience with the others behind her, Antony began using her hands to conduct the chorus and prompt intermittent cries of “ohh” from the crowd. This neatly demonstrated the way her oratory controlled the people.

At “rise and mutiny” Antony, now stood aloft on a trolley, started to conduct them in a form of aerobics, just as Caesar had done at the start. This completed the symbolic acquisition of power.

Then Antony read the will. The crowd became inflamed and a flag was waved, but then the people froze as Antony’s “Now let it work” showed her satisfaction at completing the task. Caesar watched all this from up on the gantry.

Carrie Rock began to play the part of Cinna the Poet (3.3). But suddenly the lights went on and prison guards entered and addressed her as “Anna” to take her away for her meds.

The role was given to Helen Cripps, who had the play text thrust at her and began to perform script in hand. Her character was mobbed by the others, so that the vulnerability of Cinna the Poet was accentuated by the actor’s difficulty in reading the lines while being pushed around.

The bullying descended into an all-out attack as a fight broke out. When she protested she was not Cinna the conspirator, Trebonius (Jen Joseph) said “It don’t matter, your name’s the same”.

Cinna’s head was hit against one of the gantry posts at which point the action broke out of the world of the play as Helen started complaining about the excessive violence, swearing “Fuck that hurt” etc.

Someone muttered, pointing to unseen officers offstage, “That’s what they want. They’d said we’d fuck it up”.

Caesar appeared from the shadows, serving as the prison play’s director. She examined the bleeding cut on Helen Cripps’ head and told her “you’ll live” before ordering the action to start again from a particular blow: “Let’s go from the last kick”.

This was the point at which excessive and misdirected violence within the play synchronously became excessive and misdirected in the prisoners’ attempt to stage it. The outer and inner frames of the production became connected.

The prisoners had used their performance of Julius Caesar as a way of subverting the established prison order, using the overthrow of Caesar as a metaphor for their struggles against authority.

Within the play, the conspirators’ hopes of a new world fell apart, just as a concurrent chaos descended on the prisoners’ attempt to stage the play. Their performance fractured amid dark murmurings about an unspecified “they” who would delight in their failure. Just as Caesar defeated the conspirators, so the prison authorities disrupted the prisoners’ performance.

This point often marks the interval in a production and here served to remind us of the wider context, which proved crucial for the end of performance.

Hooded

A drum kit was set up on a moveable platform while an electric guitar played at the side (4.1). A hooded prisoner kneeled before Antony, Octavius (Clare Dunne again) and Lepidus (Danielle Ward) as they surveyed the situation in Rome.

Each time they “pricked” a name, the prisoner was shot. But the same figure quickly sat up again and was repeatedly executed. The sound of shots was made by Caesar up on the gantry beating on a snare drum.

Clare Dunne now played Octavius with a harsh Northern Irish accent, much different to the softer Irish accent she had used as Portia. This could be seen as the prisoner/actor’s accent being constant across characters, and thereby a subtle reminder that we were watching a play within a play.

After being repeatedly shot as Octavius and Antony discussed the recently departed “slight unmeritable” Lepidus, the hooded prisoner (Carolina Valdés again) was at last let go. She said thanks in Spanish, but was shot whilst running away and then repeatedly machine gunned by Octavius and Antony. These drum beats by Caesar up on the gantry merged seamlessly into sustained drumming on the drum kit below, which gave an ominous significance to all subsequent drumming from that location.

The scene changed to the conspirators’ camp near Sardis (4.2). A sheet was hung from the gantry to represent the tent doors and the sofa was brought forward. The first part with Lucilius looking forward to the arrival of Cassius was cut.

The scene began with Cassius’ “Most noble brother, you have done me wrong” and continued into 4.3 with its long argument in which Brutus accused Cassius of corruption.

After Brutus asked “Did not great Julius bleed for justice sake?” there was a long pause as Cassius walked round and then sat on the sofa to look at a porn mag. Brutus snatched the magazine away, as she spoke of the “trash” for which she said they should not now sell their honours. As Cassius became more enraged she took off her top and offered her bare abdomen for Brutus to stab at, before trying to cut her own arm with the dagger.

Brutus and Cassius were reconciled. But as she concluded making her peace with Cassius, Brutus was disturbed by the snickering of the other actors behind the curtain.

Immediately after her “When I spoke that, I was ill-tempered too” Brutus angrily broke out of her character to swear loudly “You’re pissing me off! Wankers!”

This was another instance of cracks forming in the world of the prisoners’ play, reflecting the continuing failure of the conspirators’ project. The sweary interlude served as a substitute for the cynicism of the Poet, which was cut from the text. The swearing varied from performance to performance so that Harriet Walter on one occasion called the others “cunts”.

The others came from behind the curtain and were given their orders. Brutus told Cassius of Portia’s death, but it was not mentioned a second time nor discussed with the others.

Cassius and Brutus sealed their new-found amity by a bowl of wine, literally a plastic kitchen bowl with a large quantity of wine poured into it. Cassius and then Brutus drank from opposite sides of the large receptacle. Casca, not Messala, arrived with news of the executions in Rome.

Brutus insisted on fighting the opposing forces at Philippi, which would prove their undoing.

Brutus asked Lucius for some music. As she played on her A flat piccolo clarinet, the band also struck up softly. The dream sequence began with an apparition of Portia. She walked towards Brutus, who silently rose from her seat to hold Portia tenderly and dance with her slowly. Portia slipped aside and was replaced in the same dance hold by Caesar. The disembodied voice of Caesar came over the speaker system to prophesy that Brutus would see her at Philippi, and then she slipped away.

Octavius and Antony stood up on the gantry and were happy that Brutus and Cassius had decided to advance towards them (5.1). They descended to stage level to meet the enemy, initially facing off on opposite sides, but later forming a square with Brutus and Cassius on one diagonal pointing their blue plastic toy guns at Antony and Octavius on the other.

Octavius levelled her weapon saying “I draw a sword against conspirators”. After bitter words, both sides agreed to meet on the battlefield. Octavius and Antony departed.

Cassius announced that it was her birthday and a cake with a single candle was produced. They all sang Happy Birthday as she blew out the candle. Brutus and Cassius warmed their hands on an uplight representing a fire. With a harmonica playing sadly in the background, the two friends bid what they thought might be their final farewells to each other.

The battle began with the alarum taking the form of the band playing really loudly (5.2). Cassius, accompanied by her soldiers, stood looking grim on the wide trolley on which the drum kit was moved around. Soldiers occasionally got on and off the trolley to represent the excursions of the battle.

The retreating ensign carrying a modern Macedonian flag ran onstage and fell to the ground, after having been mortally wounded by Cassius (5.3). Hearing that she was surrounded, Cassius sent Trebonius (not Titinius) to check whether some distant troops were friend or foe and dispatched Pindarus to the upper gantry to spy on events.

The ensign rose from the ground, revealing that she was in fact Caesar, and moved next to Cassius. Although Cassius could not see the ghost, she shivered slightly as if in the presence of one when she admitted “my life is run his compass”. Caesar seemed to have timed her approach to Cassius so that it coincided with that fateful phrase, or her supernatural influence might even have prompted it.

Battlefield

Caesar picked up a hand-held light and shone it in the watchful Pindarus’ face. This resulted in her describing the battlefield incorrectly, reporting that Trebonius had been captured.

Realising the game was up, Cassius asked Pindarus to stab her. She complied, driving the blade into the back of Cassius’ neck. Caesar looked on with an air of quiet satisfaction as Cassius addressed her unseen presence saying “Caesar, thou art revenged, even with the sword that killed thee.”

Casca brought news of Brutus’ defeat of Octavius. Trebonius returned and spoke to the dead Cassius saying that she had “misconstrued every thing”. But Trebonius did not (as a Titinius substitute) kill herself. This kept the stage clear for the rest of the action.

Brutus entered and commented on Caesar’s might for turning their own swords against each other, before setting out to fight again.

After a brief scene showing Lucius tricking the enemy into thinking they had captured Brutus (5.4), the final battle commenced (5.5).

This was portrayed schematically with Brutus and her troops holding their guns, shifting weight from one foot to another and swaying from side to side on the spot, as loud music played. Brutus’ face grimaced with the pain of defeat, while gun shots made by beats on the snare drum felled her troops one by one.

Caesar watched from behind and also swung from side to side in time with the music, then took over the drums so that she was making the fatal drum beats.

The Soothsayer appeared naked apart from a strategically clutched doll and wandering among the soldiers.

Eventually only Brutus was left standing. She took a pistol and tried to shoot herself, but could not find the courage and whimpered with frustration.

Brutus asked called on Volumnius (Carolina Valdés again) to kill her. She made her answers in Spanish, concluding with the Spanish translation of “That’s not an office for a friend my lord”.

Brutus persuaded Lucius (not Strato) to hold her gun, before running towards it. Lucius pulled the trigger, but the sound of the gun was a drum beat produced by Caesar sat at the drum kit. As Brutus collapsed and died she looked up towards Caesar, whose face was spotlit, and said “Caesar, now be still. I killed thee not with half so good a will”.

The victorious Octavius and Antony took Casca prisoner at gunpoint. Casca spat at Octavius, who responded by making a fingers-to-eyes gesture, indicating that she had marked Casca out.

The camera crew filmed Antony’s oration about Brutus, whose limp, dead body was propped into a standing position by the others, their guns raised in triumph above their heads. Antony had donned Caesar’s iconic coat, but Octavius barged in front of Antony, putting herself before the camera. From “This was a man” Octavius took over Antony’s lines and then continued with her own lines to finish the dedication.

The prisoners bashed their trays again as Octavius completed her coup by taking Caesar’s coat from Antony and, emboldened by her new-found power, summarily shot Casca.

She stepped forward brandishing her gun. But an announcement “5 minutes until lights out” signalled that their time was up.

The play within the play finished and the warders made the cast line up and then file out through the side door.

Caesar took off her outer jacket to reveal her prison officer uniform underneath. The production dealt its masterstroke: the “prisoner” who had played Caesar had all along been a guard in full control of the prison environment.

A visibly upset Brutus was reluctant to leave. Caesar called on her to depart, which she did very unwillingly, almost in tears as she whined that she was “fed up”.

As Brutus finally departed the house lights went dark and the performance ended.

Conclusions

The production presented us with the enactment of two projects: that of the conspirators within the play to free themselves of Caesar, and that of the prison inmates staging the play in order to seize some freedom.

The genius of the production was that it showed the failure of the conspirators’ project within the play synchronously corrupting the prisoners’ attempt at staging it.

The two projects melted into one: a prisoner was taken out for her meds and her replacement, playing Cinna the Poet, became the victim of excessive violence, thereby sharing the fate of her character.

If the second half of the play is about Caesar directing events from beyond the grave, then we saw that literally happening as Frances Barber stepped out from the shadows to restart the performance: “Let’s go from that last kick”.

Brutus’ frustration became Harriet Walter’s prisoner’s frustration at the amateurism of her fellow performers when she broke out of character to swear profusely.

The effect was to increase our emotional involvement with the second half as we were tuned into two stories at once, one inside and one outside the world of the original play.

The abiding memory of the production was Brutus’ look of pale horror throughout the performance, which culminated in her ultimate defeat.

*Born in July, Caesar was not a Libran. But it is thought that the Romans invented the entire Libra star sign with its scales of justice in tribute to him.

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