Theatre Review: Julius Caesar @ Donmar Warehouse

Frances Barber as Julius Caesar and company / photo by Helen Maybanks

Phyllida Lloyd, veteran director of The Iron Lady and Mamma Mia returns to the stage with some more woman power. No, not Viva F…, an all-female version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. With a hugely successful all-male production of Twelfth Night packing in the crowds down the road, the Donmar’s warped mirror image is a more brutal affair.

Set within a women’s prison, the inmates rehearse a show about power plays and grudges. Bunny Christie’s design creates a rec room for the main action, but also offers cold metal balconies, spotlights which the actors can manoeuvre themselves, and most thrillingly a set of CCTVs that give us a glimpse of the backstage/prison corridors where dubious pacts are made.

Frances Barber takes the doomed role of Caesar, swaggering about in a long leather coat and barking orders. She comically flips between being the benevolent provider of doughnuts (nom) to shoving her sugared ring down a poor conspirator’s throat. No doubt she’ll be criticised for lacking depth, but in this interpretation the great dictator is such a removed figure that it does work.

Probing much deeper into her character is Harriet Walter as Brutus. Demonstrating all the political procrastination of Hamlet, Brutus’s tortured conscience appears to be an outlet for Walter’s prisoner, who clearly understands the freedom that can be gained, even in captivity, when you’re the head honcho.

Lloyd challenges the audience (who have to sit on hard, grey seats) by bringing them right into the intimate Donmar stage. One poor lady is unceremoniously removed from her seat to make way for Caesar’s last oration, which is filmed live and streamed to the TVs. Punk rock guitars and drums pick up the pace as the final battle rages (Pussy Riot anyone?), while violent scenes cross from being “rehearsals” into real vendettas.

This angry, meta-theatrical take won’t be to everyone’s taste, but what this Caesar shows better than most is how quickly allegiances change in mob mentality or when self-preservation is the real number one.

By Tim Macavoy

Julius Caesar runs at Donmar Warehouse until Saturday 9 February 2013. Tickets £15-£35, limited availability, or investigate the £10 front row seat offer. We saw this show on a press ticket. Phyllida Lloyd also directs Fiona Shaw in the upcoming The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

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