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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at St. Ann’s Warehouse


  Cush Jumbo and ensemble/ Ph: Pavel Antonov

To paraphrase Hamlet, when it comes to Shakespeare today, “The frame’s the thing.” Stripping his plays bare or placing them in exotic periods has been the tactic for most of the last century. The works have passed through every filter: minimalist, surrealist, mixed media, multicultural. Now comes Julius Caesar – the Roman tragedy about ambition and honor – set in a modern-day women’s prison. For a drama in which the word “man” occurs nearly threescore times, there’s nary a Y chromosome in sight.
Before we go into the pros and cons (so to speak) of this Donmar Warehouse transfer (which opened in London last year), let’s clarify director Phyllida Lloyd’s frame. Is this merely a Julius Caesar that happens to be set in an English women’s prison? Or is it an English women’s prison in which the inmates are putting on Julius Caesar for rehabilitation purposes? That crucial distinction keeps shifting, and in provocative ways. There are stretches where we intently follow the story, which the ensemble communicates with admirable force and clarity. Then there are eruptions that pull us out of the Shakespeare, reminding us that we’re watching prisoners enact a classic of the Western canon that speaks to them, but also seems imposed on them by an external authority.
That’s a perfect way to do the piece, which is about nothing if not autonomy and the struggle for freedom. We hardly ever forget the tension between the actors and the text. In the act-three persecution of Cinna the poet (who is mistaken for one of Caesar’s killers), the mob’s taunting of Cinna spills over into a mini-brawl in which stage combat gives way to real prisoner-on-prisoner violence. The scene “stops” and the offender is hauled off to solitary confinement. Also, keep your eye on Frances Barber, who plays Caesar. She has a costume shift at the very end of the night that upends everything that came before.
As the high-minded but conscience-stricken Brutus, Harriet Walter (last seen on Broadway in 2009’s Mary Stuart) sports a close-cropped coif and a pinched look of moral distress. Walter’s naturally husky voice is pitched lower, as she weighs the ethical cost of assassinating a potential tyrant, the action urged on her by the regicidal Cassius (Jenny Jules). For her part, Jules’ Cassius is a sinewy marvel, a human knife who cuts through the bunkum of divine right with a commonsense approach to power that nevertheless perverts itself into self-tyranny. The scenes between the anguished Walter and the lupine Jules are some of the most powerful, suggesting that these two prisoners have a complex history, possibly formerly romantic. Impish and androgynously charismatic Cush Jumbo cuts a dashing figure as Mark Antony. You can see why this pretty and bright-eyed youth would sway the crowd at Caesar’s funeral.
Barber’s title tyrant is a jolly bully whose flashes of sadism (at one point, she force-feeds the “lean and hungry” Cassius a doughnut) prepare the way for the uprising that ends in her brutal murder. The stabbing in the Senate is rendered with appropriate chaos and terror, partly spilling into the front row. When the conspirators ceremoniously bathe their hands in the slain Caesar’s blood, they don red, rubber cleaning gloves, an effect somehow more chilling than fake gore.
Not every conceptual leap works. The Soothsayer is portrayed as a learning-disabled girl on a bike, and the inclusion of live rock music strains for “edgy.” Still, Lloyd’s intermission-free staging is blisteringly tense and crystalline, performed by a charged ensemble that combines seasoned vets with seething young talent. Despite the liberties that director and company take with the frame, this may be the most thrilling, lucid and, yes, authentic Julius Caesar for years to come. It’s a pleasure to be their captive audience for two unbroken hours.
David Cote is theater editor of Time Out New York.


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