Film & Television

Great Performances: ‘Julius Caesar,’ A Powerful All-Women Production on PBS

Julius Caesar was the first Shakespeare play I read in junior high. It’s wordy and political, and I later wondered why we weren’t introduced to the Bard via one of his more accessible comedies. (Unless, perhaps, the purpose was to intimidate as many thirteen-year-olds as possible in one fell swoop.) We took turns reading different roles, which kept us awake, but didn’t make the text any easier or less boring.

If only we could have watched Great Performances: Julius Caesar, available now on PBS! The powerful production, by London’s Donmar Warehouse, is directed by Phyllida Lloyd, features an all-female cast, and is set in a contemporary women’s prison. Immediate and relevant, passionate and bold, but hardly what Shakespeare might have imagined.

Of course, William Shakespeare’s own Julius Caesar would also have had a single-sex cast. In his day, the Lord Chamberlain of the Household (the sovereign’s most senior officer) declared that women could not appear onstage. Any female characters (there are only two in Julius Caesar) were portrayed by young men or boys, dressed in women’s clothing. And, despite high school English curricula everywhere, Shakespeare never expected his plays to be read. They were meant to be performed.

The Donmar Warehouse, an intimate theater located in Covent Garden, has performed many of Shakespeare’s plays. In its 24-year history, it has earned a reputation for producing beautiful and impeccably acted versions of classics. A few years ago, when it was announced that artistic director Josie Rourke and executive producer Kate Pakenham were going to mount a trilogy of all-female Shakespeare productions, it was regarded as a stunt. The two women, however, along with director Lloyd and acclaimed classical actress Dame Harriet Walter, saw it as a way to draw attention to the overall lack of stage roles for women.

Pakenham admits that the process changed her outlook. “I want to hear women’s voices and voices we don’t usually hear,” she told The Guardian. “I definitely have become braver. The good girl has been squashed. And the rebel has been born.”

The three plays—Caesar, Henry IV, and The Tempest—were staged in a framework that made them plays within a play. Each was set in a women’s prison; the conceit being that inmates (and in some cases, guards) were enacting roles as part of an arts program within the prison itself. The idea was Lloyd’s, and Walter quickly agreed, suggesting that they collaborate with Clean Break, a not-for-profit organization that uses theater to work with women who are, have been, or are likely to become incarcerated. Walter has a long history working with prison charities. “While I realize there are people who commit horrendous crimes,” she explained to Go London, “A huge majority of women in prison have not done anything violent, and the worst casualties have been themselves and their families.” Along with Walter and several other fine professional actresses, the cast of Julius Caesar includes some former inmates.

Today, Walter is one of England’s most respected thespians. However, she didn’t earn that stardom until she was in her thirties, when she played Cleopatra at the Royal Shakespeare Company. American audiences will recognize her as the Dowager Countess’s friend Lady Shackleton on Downton Abbey. Here, she portrays Brutus, who serves as the play’s often conflicted conscience. She is tremendous to watch and to listen to (and, thanks to the innovative filming, it often feels as though we’re with her in the theater space itself).

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