Film & Television

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

Julius Caesar, which has been abridged and runs just under two hours, was shot during actual performances at the Donmar. In order to achieve as much of a live theater experience as possible, stationary cameras were combined with Go-Pros and iPhones used by actresses onstage. At times, we are in the very thick of the action, whether that’s Caesar’s assassination, the mob responding to Brutus’s and Mark Anthony’s eulogies, or prison guards breaking up a theatrical fight which has quickly become all too real.

Caesar is portrayed by writer-entertainer Jackie Clune. Her alter-ego prison character is sharply defined. As anyone who has watched Orange is the New Black  can attest, prisons tend to have pecking orders, with the most charismatic — and dangerous — inmates at the top. Here, Caesar is returning to the prison population (from time outside or maybe from solitary confinement), much to the delight of his/her followers, who are happy to have their leader again. Meanwhile, other prisoners, playing Roman dignitaries, are plotting not just to remove him/her from office, but to commit murder.

Although it’s a bit awkward to describe the two worlds that this particular Julius Caesar inhabits (ancient Rome and modern prison), most of the production is presented as a literal reading of the play. It is only at odd moments that Shakespeare’s drama is interrupted and we are reminded of the unconventional setting. The play questions authority, especially the misuse of it. This is certainly something that relates to the prison system — to those trapped within it and to those who exploit it.

There are several other standouts in the multiracial cast. Martina Laird (from the UK’s EastEnders) is riveting as conspirator Cassius. Jade Anouka, as Mark Antony, delivers the famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech after being knocked to the floor by the Roman mob. Clare Dunne takes on the roles of Brutus’s wife Portia and Octavius Caesar, and excels in both. Karen Dunbar, Sheila Atim, Carolina Valdes, and Shiloh Coke portray, respectively, Casca, Lucius, Cinna, and Cinna the Poet. Zainab Hasan is Caesar’s wife Calpurnia, who begs him — to no avail — not to go to the senate on the “ides of March.”

Lloyd’s directorial career has been eclectic. Along with lighthearted box office hits Mamma Mia! and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, and more serious fare like The Iron Lady, her credits include directing Wagner’s entire Ring Cycle for the English National Opera. Her work on Julius Caesar is at once enthralling and repelling. The play’s philosophical quandaries are jarringly interrupted by its brutality. Again, making the choice to set it in a women’s prison befitting, if not downright brilliant.

With so few female characters, Julius Caesar may seem like an odd choice for an all-women production. But, that was one reason it was chosen to kick off what became known as “the cell-block Shakespeares.” “Julius Caesar came up because it seemed so unfeminine,” Walter confirms. “It offered a chance to engage our hearts and minds in things that were bigger than domestic issues, and to celebrate, and notice, and not be coy about, addressing the gender imbalance.”

Donmar’s Henry IV and The Tempest were also filmed and have been used in the National Theatre’s school outreach program. With any luck, we can hope to see them on PBS in the future.

Great Performances: Julius Caesar premiered on PBS this past weekend. Check your local listings for encore performances. Or visit pbs.org to view it online.

 

Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.