What does an all-female Julius Caesar teach us that we don't already know about Shakespeare's tale of betrayal, ambition, and male stupidity? Not that much, really--but it does make the things we know fresh and vivid. And, anyway, the Donmar production currently at St. Ann's Warehouse is so thrilling and intensely hard-hitting that it doesn't matter what gender the actors are; it just matters that they're so damn good.
On the other hand, how wonderful that the cast is all female. How wonderful that they get to strut their stuff and be tough and play complex challenging roles. I can't help but imagine that, after stays and corsets and bustles, acting in trousers is liberating, and the performances certainly feel liberated: vibrant, fervent, and deeply heartfelt.
So, it's the usual story: Cassius convinces Brutus that Julius Caesar is too ambitious and too weak and therefore bad for Rome. Brutus has misgivings but persuades himself that murder is the only solution, despite his love for Caesar. The assassination is carried out, and no good comes of it.
In this production, the show is being performed in a women's prison. This accounts for the women playing men, and it also provides a nice edginess; some of these performers may actually be murderers. And the taut direction by Phyllida Lloyd--with electrifying support from Bunny Christie (design), Neil Austin (lighting), Tom
Gibbons (sound), Gary Yershon (music), Ann Yee (movement), and Kate Waters (fights)--maintains a breathless level of tension and conflict throughout.
And the cast, oh, the cast! Everyone is outstanding, though Harriet Walter (Brutus), Frances Barber (Caesar), Cush Jumbo (Mark Antony), and Jenny Jules (Cassius) get the most opportunity to strut their stuff--and strut they do! But there are no weak links here--everyone contributes to the beauty and glory of this excellent production.
Men playing women's roles is so commonplace as to be a bit tiresome, and there is often a level of cartoon to the performances. Women playing men's roles occurs less often, and, I think, has more to offer. Here's to an all-female, oh, Lear, or Henry V, or Much Ado About Nothing! I'm ready.
(very audience right; six row; tdf ticket)