Saturday 5 January 2013

Julius Caesar at the Donmar, or, The Concept Rules (Ineffectively)

The pity of this performance is that there are quite a lot of talented actresses on the stage. Some of them, most notably Harriet Walter as Brutus, manage, often for long stretches, to transcend the ineffective concept of a production in which they are stranded. But in the end, Phyllida Lloyd's new production is a classic case of the arrogant director who having thrown out the original setting has nothing to put in its place.

Lloyd's concept appears to be that the play is being put on by a theatre group in a women's prison. I say appears to be because for much of the time we are simply in a pretty bare, empty environment. After the prisoners are marched in at the beginning, Lloyd appears to forget about where she's set the piece for two thirds of the play. The main consequence of this is that although there is some sterling delivery of text going on from some of the performers, much of it falls flat because the environmental context has been removed and replaced with, well, nothing very clear. Would that this had persisted to the end of the evening. Unfortunately, at about the two thirds mark Lloyd suddenly seems to remember that she's imposed this concept on the show and obviously feels that she better do something to justify it. First a minor Citizen Prisoner is summoned by the guard to take her meds. She is replaced by another unidentified prisoner (outside of their parts in the play there is almost no sense that they any of them have separate characters as prisoners) who reads the next scene from the script. Then in the big Cassius and Brutus reconciliation scene, some prisoners start giggling giving Walter the opportunity to deploy a few choice swear words in their direction. Having duly reminded us, in this baffling fashion, of her concept, the thing once again subsides from view.

Two other consequences of this concept need to be mentioned here. First, the normal Stalls benches have been replaced by grey plastic chairs which are increasingly hard on the back in a two hour sit. Secondly, the interval has been dispensed with. Given how half baked the concept is, I do not think either decision is justified.

All of this is rather a pity since, as already mentioned, there is some fine acting labouring under these conditions, and on that basis it is an excellent advertisement for all-female Shakespeare. Harriet Walter's Brutus is superb. She persistently lifts things outside of Lloyd's concept and almost convinced me that there was something more than the prison over which everybody was fighting. She has stillness, delivery, nuance in spades, which makes it the more irritating that the production does so little to reinforce what she's doing. Also very good is Jenny Jules's Cassius. Her delivery is a bit too much at one level in places, but she too has great presence, and the Brutus/Cassius scene towards the close is compelling stuff (again making the interjection above mentioned the more idiotic). Ishia Bennison gives a nice turn as Casca. About Frances Barber's Caesar I was rather less sure, but I think she is especially a victim of the staging. The opening is incoherent, her scenes of power played in such a way as to make her almost ridiculous, and the stabbing was particularly unconvincing. Oddly, she becomes a compelling presence only as a ghost. Cush Jumbo's Antony also suffers in this regard – goodness knows who thought up all the movement, weird choral singing and grunting that goes on during the Brutus/Antony funeral speeches but it is successful, as others have observed, at making that crucial moment go for nothing.

In the end, despite the best efforts of the actors it's impossible for the evening to get past the fundamental problem. This is that Lloyd, having thrown out classical buildings and sandy battlefields, hasn't put sufficient in their place. And that makes for a sadly empty evening.

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