The Donmar Presents Julius Caesar, 2017.
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd.
Starring Harriet Walter, Jade Anouka, Jackie Clune, and Martina Laird.
A filmed version of The Donmar Warehouse’s all-woman production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Fearing that Caesar is becoming too powerful, a group of senators assassinate him, but discover that violent regime change leads to more bloodshed.
From its start as the occasional filmed version of a stage play, event cinema is now something of a regular, bringing concerts, opera, exhibitions and ballet, as well as theatre, to a wider audience. Of late, it’s not unusual for it to make the box office top five. The latest theatre to join in is London’s Donmar Warehouse, with its ground-breaking production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. After its premiere at Edinburgh last month, it arrives in cinemas around the country on the 12th.
This, however, is much more than your bog-standard filmed staged performance and it gives us the best seat in the house. It’s theatre in the round, a small, intimate space with people sat in the front row at the same level as the actors – right in the line of fire, as it were, and with an immediacy that you simply don’t get anywhere else. In this version, you get all that, along with other advantages. Aerial shots that nobody would see in the actual theatre, giving another dimension entirely to the performance. And behind the scenes moments, when the prisoners are escorted through the corridors to begin their play.
The essential story is familiar enough, but director Phyllida Lloyd and the Donmar team have given it a couple of extra layers. Firstly, the cast is 100% female, with Harriet Walter as Brutus, Martina Laird as Cassius and Jade Anouka as Mark Antony. In itself, it’s a point of different with other productions, but this one takes it further. The setting is inside a women’s prison, so each member of the cast is playing two roles – a prisoner and their Shakesperean character. Jade Anouka delivers a speech at the start, not just as Mark Antony, but also as the prisoner playing Mark Antony: a woman who’s been in an abusive relationship, fought back and paid the price. It’s a big ask for the actors.
As the action proceeds, you’re so drawn into the events and the characters that you start to forget the setting and the other side of the people we’re watching. But Lloyd is wise to that and throws in a reminder here and there. Like when Brutus (Harriet Walter) has to tell of a couple of younger members of the cast who are watching her and giggling. She abandons Brutus for a moment, returns to her prisoner persona and tells them to get lost – in forceful, modern English.
Although you never quite forget that you’re watching a cinematic version of a stage play, this is one that makes clever use of the camera, especially when it comes to close-ups. Nothing escapes the searching lens, so there are times when the lines start to blur between each dual character. Harriet Walter’s Brutus is tortured with guilt and uncertainty right from the start, but her other character, the prison inmate, is more fragile, feels helplessly trapped and delivers a challenging order to the audience at the end. She has more of a lean and hungry look than Martina Laird’s Cassius, who is still her loyal lieutenant but one with a mind of her own. Jade Anouka’s Mark Antony is streetwise and savvy, way smarter and more manipulative than she might appear – and knows exactly how to manipulate the crowd. It’s a really magnetic piece of acting.
Julius Caesar may have an all-female cast, but the intensity is such that you soon forget you’re watching women and, instead, concentrate on the characters, with their complexities, contradictions and dilemmas. For those who resist Shakespeare and his language, this is an inventive and thrilling adaptation. And it’s impossible not to understand it.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★