In 1588, Queen Elizabeth rode to Tilbury and delivered a speech rousing the troops against the Spanish Armada. “I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman,” she declared, “but I have the heart of a king.” You can hear echoes of that speech throughout Shakespeare’s 1599 Julius Caesar, as when Portia complains, “I have a man’s mind, but a woman’s might.”
Those echoes ring louder and longer in the current revival at St. Ann’s Warehouse, an import from London’s Donmar, directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Here, as in the recent film Caesar Must Die, the action relocates to a prison—in this case, a women’s prison, in which ladies play friends, Romans, and countrymen all.
Lloyd’s production, like Caesar, is ambitious and not invariably successful; the double estrangement (females, jail) means that it takes on the play both as a study of masculinity performed by women and as an exploration of power deferred to the powerless, never entirely realizing either theme. But it’s visceral and stimulating, divulging its audiences back into the Brooklyn night still debating its particulars.
The framing begins early. Designer Bunny Christie has kitted out St. Ann’s as a clink (it’s surprising how little renovation this entails). English-accented guards herd audiences into a loading dock and berate us about cellphone use before allowing us to enter the theater. The slammer setting extends even into the restrooms, with a placard warning visitors against taking drugs. So much for my pre-show oxy.
Still, Lloyd could articulate her vision more coherently, as it took me nearly an hour to determine whether these events were spontaneously occurring within the pen or whether these women were deliberately rehearsing and performing the play. This confusion could work productively in a different version, but Lloyd’s adaptation already takes on so much that more clarity would be welcome. The setting does allow for improvisation—assassinating Caesar with a bottle of bleach—and kinetic surprise, though I’m not sure how the screws allowed a prisoners’ punk band with full drum kit.
And yet what distinguishes this revival is less the prison circumstance and more the immediate and intricate take on the relationships between the characters: Antony and Caesar, Caesar and Brutus, Brutus and Cassius, etc. The justly celebrated Harriet Walter proves there really is nothing like a dame. Her Brutus, wonderfully layered and terrifyingly sympathetic, attracts our support even as we question his decisions. Jenny Jules gives an intense turn as Cassius and the rather gorgeous Cush Jumbo a captivating one as Mark Antony. If Frances Barber’s Caesar seems less nuanced in regards to line-reading, her performance pays off with a nifty last-act reveal. And without wanting to read too much into the single-sex casting, the ensemble seems unusually close-knit. They exude a genuine delight in playing with one another.
Ultimately, I’m not sure to what extent this casting actually illuminates the play, and I’m even less sure that it matters. Yes, other productions might delineate the politics more clearly, and as much as this one highlights every pejorative example of “woman,” “women’s,” and “womanish,” there aren’t too many of them. But this Caesar offers marvelous actors in superb roles typically denied them. You can see a variety of women—all shapes, all ages, several races—flexing their vocal, emotional, and even abdominal muscles. Surely that’s worth hailing.