While waiting for the all-female production of Julius Caesar to begin at the Donmar last Saturday I was chatting to my next door neighbour (an actress) about Privates on Parade, which I saw recently, and she said she wouldn’t want to see a show that featured an almost all-male cast and only one part for a woman. That brought me up short rather, because the gender makeup of the cast has never really been something I’ve taken much account of when deciding what shows I want to see. (But then I am not an actress, not any longer; and fortunately I didn’t tell her one of the plays on my agenda for January is the all-male Globe production of Twelfth Night.)
In fact I sat down to Julius Caesar (director Phyllida Lloyd) with quite a few misgivings. An all-female Julius Caesar of all plays – why? Set in a woman’s prison – double why?? (That said I thought the all-female Richard III at the Globe a few years ago was a deal better than the all-male version of the same play I saw there this summer.)
The first ten minutes or so did not nothing to dispel those misgivings. The show begins with an awful lot of noise, and these women in grey track suits running up and down the stairs, banging tin trays, gesturing and yelling in a decidedly butch manner and kowtowing to the woman in the beret, who shouts louder than any of them.
However once the play itself began things begin to fall into place. The woman in the beret is Caesar, of course (Frances Barber), and the pale, gaunt one is Brutus (Harriet Walter). From then on it was, pretty much, plain sailing.
It’s not so much that I forgot they were women – despite some ultra masculine haircuts and posturing I never felt these women were pretending to be men; the gender issue wasn’t an issue. What I did get from this production, more I think than I ever have from any previous version, was the strength of friendship, in particular between the muscular, energetic Cassius (Jenny Jules) and the pale, doubting Brutus, and between Brutus and Mark Anthony (Cush Jumbo) – whose transformation from headstrong, callow youth to canny politician reminded me rather of young Hal/Henry V.
On occasion (not too often) we are reminded that this is a prison production, when fight scenes get out of hand and sirens sound and prison warders appear through a heavy clanging door and slam on the lights; and on another occasion when Brutus/Harriet Walter, annoyed at the suppressed giggling outside his tent while he is remonstrating with Cassius, breaks off to hiss through the gap in the canvas – ‘Will you shut the f*** up!’.
But oddly enough rather than annoyingly interrupting the flow these interjections add another layer to the proceedings, by reminding us that these are professional actors playing prisoners playing Romans. So when the girl playing a pregnant Portia mysteriously retains her bump when doubling as Octavius this is because it is the prisoner who is pregnant, rather than Portia. (I admit this had to be explained to me.) And because the multi-tasking cast, some of whom played instruments, remain on stage for much of the action you are never quite sure whether it is the ghost of Caesar lurking in the background during the battle scenes, or the prisoner in the beret.
So I have to say my misgivings were totally allayed. This is one of the clearest, most beautifully spoken and – above all – most moving versions of Julius Caesar I have ever seen (and I’ve seen a few); perhaps it was because of the all-female cast, but I think more likely it was that we were simply watching acting of the highest order.
PS: More on Peter Nichols. Passion Play is opening at the Duke of York’s Theatre in May, starring Zoe Wanamaker. It was always my suggestion that the Globe name their second theatre after its creator, her father Sam Wanamaker. So someone is listening to me after all!