Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Julius Caesar: Veni, Vidi, Bitteri

"Speak. Strike. Redress."--Brutus

"Speak. Strike. Redress. Focus. Focus. Focus."--Mildly Bitter

Phyllida Lloyd's all female production of Julius Caesar could have been a really fascinating interpretation of Shakespeare but ended up lost in the circus of its own concepts.  This Donmar Warehouse production, directed by Lloyd, is set within a women's prison.  It would seem that the inmates are both living the world of Julius Caesar and performing it under the careful watch of the prison guards.  They are also occasionally playing rock 'n roll music and filming their endeavor with video cameras. Presumably this is a low security prison.

Julius Caesar (Frances Barber) is the beloved leader of perhaps the prison gang...or maybe Rome.  With her adoring Marc Antony (Cush Jumbo) to cuddle and kiss as she likes and also rule Rome with (?).  But lurking in the shadows to Caesar's all consuming power, in prison...or Rome, is Cassius (Jenny Jules) and Brutus (Harriet Walter) who conspire to bring down Caesar so that they can be "free"...or something.  

Really I have no idea what the plot of this play was.  I mean there is a plot to kill Caesar and--spoiler alert--they do, but the integration of this story into the prison setting created layers of confusion.    There were rare moments the "script" strayed from Shakespeare but largely they performed in the Bard's language.  But between performance and production, the meaning of Shakespeare got lost. 

I loved the idea of the female cast in a show that is traditionally intended to be mostly male.  The questions of power, freedom, aggression, and filial love get shaken up by this choice.  The intimacy that is created between the characters and Lloyd's choice to explore that intimacy was one of the most successful aspects of the production.  Gender gets pushed to the forefront and makes us confront our own preconceived notions of it.  It sheds light on the roles we play--husbands and wives, friends and lovers and brothers in arms.  Watching conspirators, touch each other gently and speak in hushed tones when you'd expect bluster, aggression, and vitriol upended expectations. The push and pull between warring men and the women who fear for them and foresee disaster became a much more compelling dynamic when all the roles are performed by women.  Traditionally patriarchal and matriarchal voices get a totally different gloss. 

But all this fascinating work around gender kept getting lost in the myriad of other devices being employed.  I longed for Tim Gunn to walk in, give it a withering stare, and say you've got to eliminate something Phyllida. "Make it work."  The sudden rock 'n roll jam sessions might have been a stand-in for war but you lost me completely with the video cameras, squelchy projections, and the creeping child on the tricycle.  I kept grasping for some coherence as to how we started in the prison and then drifted away from that concept...only to return to it again.  The themes of freedom, liberation, and aggression could be shoehorned into a prison setting but I did not feel those individual prisoners connecting to those themes.  Never knowing who these women prisoners were proved fatal to the production. I struggled to understand if these women were moved to perform Julius Caesar in prison OR if these women were living out Julius Caesar in prison OR if this was just a production of Julius Caesar performed by women.  In the end it felt that Lloyd chose to employ each of these perspectives at different times in the play.

But if you are going to do all three of those stories there has to be reason for the shift and clarity for the audience as to what compels that change in perspective.  Instead, the oscillating interpretations failed to tell Shakespeare's story or the story of these women in prison. I kept thinking of Macbeth starring Alan Cumming.  This too is another production where people are speaking Shakespeare's words but we know they are more than Shakespeare's characters.  As such we need to know who these people are so Shakespeare's words have meaning to us since obviously they have some meaning to that character (or do they?).  It need not be laid out in a didactic manner for the audience but I think the director needs to know who is speaking and why and all aspects of the production need to feed into that goal.

I never felt a firm hand on the tiller here.  The constant herky-jerky movements between different concepts led to a great deal of mental and conceptual whiplash--Caesar kisses Marc Antony. Are they prison lovers? But Caesar has a wife. Is this a prison wife?  A real wife? I'm so confuuuuuuuused. As much as there were strong moments where each of these directorial ideas connected with the source material none of them were a constant.  The moments of conceptual dissonance were far more loud and resonant. I mean, I can love me some dissonance but this was unintentional--a loud metallic scraping sound as concept and text crashed into each other and dragged along fighting for primacy. 
Harriet Walter has an emotional moment at the end of the play. I think Lloyd thought by this point she had established Walter's character beyond the "role" of Brutus and this expression of emotion was an extension of that.  But neither Lloyd nor Walter had given us any insight into that character at all.  And let's just not talk about the choice they've made at the end for Caesar. It received a loud and pronounced eyeroll from me.

Walter opted for a very strange accent and diction for her Brutus.  She has such a commanding voice and I'm not sure why she chose to dull it in the way she did.  Jenny Jules as Cassius chose wild gesticulation to punctuate every line spoken.  It was unbearable and elucidated nothing about the character. 

All in all I went into this production excited to see this lauded cast and I left, frustrated, angry, and disappointed.  I think my ire at this production came from the fact that this had so much potential and that was just squandered. 

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