When Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island, he highlighted a passage in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as inspiration. In a sense Phyllida Lloyd’s bold new production picks up on this, setting the play in an all-female prison. The Donmar is stripped back to cold, grey walls; the harsh lighting illuminates metal walkways; the audience, on plastic chairs, become witnesses to a performance that, we guess, has been granted for cathartic reasons. The fact that the actors are all female, the continual presence of the prison guards and the occasional brusque suspension of the action when prison life intervenes, all lend a distancing effect, emphasising the way the story, though specific, becomes almost a template for revolution and its unintended aftermath.
It’s a raw, vivid staging, and in the end particularly bleak, because the women, having acted out their frustrations, are returned to their cells. Frances Barber’s Caesar, a jocular, terrifying bully who can turn a humble doughnut into an instrument of torture, consents to being brutally murdered, but at lockdown slips back into her warden’s uniform to resume charge. The play has acted as both a release and a warning. Nothing changes.
A highly charged, uncomfortably edgy evening is led by some superb performances, none better than Harriet Walter’s luminously pale, troubled Brutus. With her cropped, slicked-back hair and rueful, anguished demeanour, she brilliantly conveys the torment of her character’s impossible position. She is met by Jenny Jules’ impetuous Cassius, Cush Jumbo’s disingenuous Mark Antony and a nicely cynical Casca from Ishia Bennison. As they enact the traditionally male roles of statesman and military tactician, one notices more than usual how the women in the play are sidelined by the men.
But there are many distracting drawbacks too to such a highly conceptualised staging. It’s not clear how important the specifics of the context are. What, for instance, is the relationship between “Brutus” and “Caesar” and does it matter? Are rough bits of staging deliberate or accidental? Most significantly, you lose the role of the public and the terror of civil war: Mark Antony’s speech doesn’t tip the mood as it can do.
In the end, however, it is Walter who carries the argument for the staging. Her Brutus, allowed out only because of the special circumstances, not only conveys Brutus’s agony and that of the prisoner playing him, but also offers a quietly tantalising glimpse of what our great female actors could do with roles on a par with Hamlet and Lear.