Donmar Warehouse (King’s Cross Theatre)
This was the first part in a trilogy of Shakespeare plays, not obviously thematically linked as plays but performed in a consistent manner – with an all-female cast headed by Harriet Walter and a linking framing device that all the plays are being performed by a group of female prisoners.
The staging (in large shed just north of King’s Cross) was in the round (or rather in the square), with front-of-house dressed as prison guards* and a stage rough-painted concrete with faded outlines of a basketball court. The performance started with one member of the cast sharing her “prisoner’s” story – jailed for manslaughter after suffering domestic abuse and turning to violence.
So this was a slightly stripped back Julius Caesar** (so far as I know – I have never seen the play in any form before) which told a simple but incredibly powerful story of betrayal and how good men can be led into doing apparently awful things for the sake of their principles. The staging was stripped back too – mostly only the sort of props you might actually find in a prison. The same blue plastic chairs we were sitting on, a hospital-style bed, bathrobes for costumes. All of this just left space for the cast to shine.
The costumes were even more stripped back – a prison uniform of grey tracksuits and black trainers which lent the cast an androgynous air and meant you concentrated even harder on their movement. We were never allowed to forget that this a prison – it isn’t merely a top-and-tail (like Richard III’s excavation) but something which permeates how the actors act and behave and present the characters – effectively there’s a double layer of intense story-telling going on.
All of this is only possible because of the quality of the cast. Harriet Walter is of course fabulous as Brutus – upright, sacrificing all to honour, demanding impossible standards of the men around him. She was backed up by a wonderfully shifty Martina Laird as Cassius and Jade Anouka as a Mark Antony who appeared merely a trusted lieutenant but could scheme and rabble-rouse with the best.
Jackie Clune was the rockstar Julius Caesar whose fall was absolutely shocking. Leah Harvey was amazing as a childish soothsayer with creepy doll*** and a Shining-esque tricycle, while Karen Dunbar provided gorgeous clarity of speech as Casca****. You know I love doubling up – well the cast of only 12 (assuming you don’t count the prison guards) meant we saw two fabulous sides of Clare Dunne as Portia and as Octavius Caesar while Carolina Valdés had a great turn as a dog as well as Cinna.
The play had a wonderful tonal range – from the persuasive urging of a gentle but steadfast Portia to that creepy soothsayer on a squeaky tricycle, from the straightforward military decisions to the labyrinthine conspiracies hatching on both sides. I love the contrasts of Portia’s and Calpurnia’s relationships with their husbands and of the two factions in Rome. And some of the lines about politicians just cut too close to the bone still:
But when I tell him he hates flatterers,
He says he does, being then most flattered
But in all of this Roman depth we were never allowed to forget the prison – the reminders sometimes funny, when a bottle of wine was actually Ribena, or when Harriet Walter broke one character to let her prisoner scold others for not taking it seriously. Sometimes they were shocking, when the murder of Cinna broke out in real (or at least prison-real) violence which brought the guards rushing back on stage. But none of this undercut Shakespeare’s action – instead it heightened it in ways I’m not entirely sure I can explain. *****
I left the theatre just absolutely buzzing with excitement for the next two plays. Not bad for two hours on a plastic chair…
* The illusion somewhat failed when the navy jumpers were paired with skinny jeans.
** Under two hours running time is a good idea when you are staging three shows in a single day…
*** That’s the second this year – I really hope it doesn’t become a thing…
**** And I mean that as a massive compliment. Julius Caesar was originally staged in 2012, with a different cast (Cush Jumbo, the original Mark Anthony, went off to be in The Good Wife) and various other actors tripped over their lines but Karen was always a pleasure to listen to.