Amid the flurry of unconventional Shakespearean productions taking over the West End this year, Phyllida Lloyd’s production of Julius Caesar is undoubtedly one of the most unique.
It is hard to imagine an interpretation of Shakespeare more unusual than a gypsy-inspired A Midsummer Night’s Dream or a Much Ado About Nothing taken into the opulent realm of modern-day India.
An all-female cast confined within the walls of a prison is certainly a good start, but a production that introduces the Bard’s well-known political figures to the modern wonders of celebrity gossip and Krispy Kreme doughnuts is an added extra, not to mention the play’s central character being warned of the Ides of March by a horoscope in Heat magazine.
Far removed from Ancient Rome, here the intimidating inmates of a prison are staging their own production of Shakespeare’s great political thriller. Telling the famous tale of assassination and retribution, the vehement cast of this play-within-a-play can somehow relate to the Bard’s 16th century tragedy, as they are seen as conspiring against the enforced authority of the institution in which they are imprisoned and portraying the power struggles and shifting loyalties that unfold within it.
Unrecognisable under Bunny Christie’s elaborate jail set, the stage of the Donmar Warehouse has come to resemble what the latter part of its name would suggest for Lloyd’s boundary-pushing production, with worn and discoloured metal railings framing the mould-stained walls and dim white strip lights shedding a dingy light on the stark expanse of floor. Even the seating in the stalls has been replaced by ordinary plastic chairs, presenting the venue’s auditorium as a skeleton of its former self.
A 15-strong cast dressed head to toe in grey does little to brighten up the surroundings but, led by Frances Barber and Harriet Walter, this impressive troop of actresses reveals greater vibrancy in the quality of their performances.
Utterly mesmerising in the title role, Barber oozes defiance until her very last breath as the powerful and fearless dictator whose famous last words are said with more venom than an abnormally angry viper.
As Jenny Jules spits out her sentences as the conspiring and resentful Cassius, Walter quivers with indecision and anguish as the tortured and naïve Brutus, whose morals are gradually crushed under Cassius’ overbearing manipulation. Pronouncing her plosives with resolute power, Cush Jumbo’s passionate and perceptive Marc Antony provides quite the contrast to Charlotte Josephine’s performance as what must undoubtedly be the chaviest Lucius you’ll ever encounter.
Making use of CCTV screens and video recordings to portray the violent demise of the great leader at the centre of Shakespeare’s rousing political thriller, Lloyd’s production intersperses traditional Shakespearean tongue with outbursts of anarchic cursing, which, together with Neil Austin’s innovative hands-on lighting, expertly conveys the play’s wider plot, much to the amusement of the press night audience.