I’m not a reviewer, but I felt compelled to record my response to a recent theatre experience.
On going to see Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse this week, I felt a strange mixture of excitement and dread. This play means more than the sum of its parts – as Clare Booth Luce pointed out once, a woman who fails does not fail only for herself, she fails for all women. I knew this production was being judged not just as a performance of Shakespeare, but as some kind of landmark for all women in theatre.
The reviews I had skimmed beforehand mostly pointed out the same flaw; that the prison setting, the play within a play framework, was distracting and reductive, and that it did not allow for the epic scope of Rome and State that lies at the centre of the text. I prepared myself for disappointment. That disappointment did not come.
That the play has some flaws, I do not dispute. Others have written better words than I can about the nuances of the various performances. (For what it’s worth, I found Harriet Walter and Cush Jumbo were both gripping, excellent, fierce and compelling). What I really want to talk about is the play within a play and what that meant for me. I’m no Shakespeare buff, and certainly no purist. I don’t know Julius Caesar particularly well as a play, though I know the story well enough from the dozens of television and film versions that have crossed my path over the years. What I found here was something else, something fresher and truer to me, as a female arts practitioner.
Bunny Christie’s stripped-back set and the use of basic props, no special effects, no big budget fireworks, left the text to stand by itself. In the hands of Walter et al, it came through loud and clear. The design also worked for me as a mirror to the general attitude towards women in theatre – the poor siblings of grand men of words, we do not have the bass notes to declaim and bellow, so we must be more creative. Mark Anthony’s speech was riveting, magnetic, because Cush Jumbo cannot resort to the cheap tricks used by the likes of David Calder (who’s King Lear raged like a mad bull across the globe stage a few years ago, tiresome and one-dimensional). The performance interrupts and disrupts itself as the prison and the prisoners impose their will on each other. Mostly though, for me, this setting made stood as a subtle but potent statement about the position of creative women, and of women in the performing arts particularly. After two hours of powerful and exciting work, after being so gripping and so gripped, after really truly proving that Women Can Do Shakespeare (as if we should have to prove anything in 2013, but there you go), after giving the text clarity, potency and passion that I’ve never experienced before, the cast must form an orderly queue and shuffle off into their cells, into the margins once more.
The setting was helped along by some excellent sound design – the room rang with a tinny reverb, leaving the text hanging in the atmosphere just for a moment. As the prison tannoy burst in on the action, it destroyed the illusion of one play, but drew so much out of the other, highlighting the response made by people like Charles Spencer, whose article about the play was not so much a review, as an exposé of his own misogyny. Watching this production in the light of the abuse thrown at Mary Beard, effectively told to shut up because she is not ‘attractive enough’ to hold a valid opinion, and other more or less vile responses to high profile women, it is hard not to read the disruptions, the undermining action of the inmates who titter behind the screen as Brutus and Cassius play out an emotional scene, as an illustration of how women’s voices are ridiculed and scorned despite the importance of what we are trying to say. Those who hurl the abuse, who want their women submissive, weak and Victorian, won’t ever be converted to an appreciation of the likes of the raw, energetic, angry people on this stage, and so we are left making work that preaches to the choir, repeating performances over and over to ourselves.
And these women are angry. The device that allows the actors to have a double layer of performance means that we see them affected by the play as our contemporaries. Harriet Walter is left shattered by her experience. We recognise her as a human, solid, real. We get two plays here, intertwining so effectively. We care about these women, about what has been imposed on them. Julius Caesar is clearly so important to them that we must solve the puzzle, we must engage and care about what they are doing. Ancient Rome means little to me, but watching these characters slug it out together, that means something more. Here these women battle to keep hold of their ideals, their power or their status, fighting both the state and their cellmates, and themselves.
There is much talk, when approaching old texts, of making it relevant. Each company approaching a classic must look for their own relevance. This group of people have, wuite validly, interpreted it thus. It is true that this production does not portray the epic scope of Ancient Rome, but it’s not like we’ve never seen that before. History is full of male-centric epics. This play is about something more profound: our own internal Romes, the points at which we all sacrifice something for an ideal, or sacrifice the ideal for our own selfish reasons. Each of us has a Julius and a Brutus inside. What this play is really talking about is more complex, more difficult and more compelling than a bunch of long dead men in togas. This is a play about us, here, now, demanding to be heard and demanding to be released from the echo chamber of marginalisation.