Harriet Walter in “Julius Caesar”

Willful as it may seem on paper, setting Shakespeare's power-struggle drama in a women's prison makes, it turns out, absolute sense.

Phyllida Lloyd’s audacious, full-throttle “Julius Caesar” is arresting in every sense of the word. Willful as it may seem on paper, setting Shakespeare’s power-struggle drama in a women’s prison makes, it turns out, absolute sense. So much so that the all-female casting — perceived in some quarters, pre-opening, as a gimmick — grows increasingly unremarkable thanks to the vise-like grip of the interpretation.

From the replacing of audience seating with grey plastic chairs to the locked-down space with walls painted grimy gray under harsh, bright light, Lloyd and her design team turn the Donmar into a wholly convincing prison environment. Her actors then file on under guard and proceed to mount an intense, fascinatingly high-pressure production of the play.

Although the play-within-a-play approach is hardly new, this specific relocation doesn’t so much add a dimension as realize and release the depth and dynamism inherent in the text. A prison is self-evidently a place of danger and that plus the acutely important hierarchies of prison life — as much among the prisoners and between them and the staff — speaks immediately to the play’s concerns.

The crucially different statuses of Shakespeare’s senators are communicated with unusual definition. Frances Barber’s gleamingly vicious, strutting Caesar is evidently admired, feared and loathed in equal measure, but Lloyd ensures everyone’s individual relationship to her is crystal clear.

With the character-driven drama of plots and counterplots thus thrillingly grounded, everything takes off remarkably swiftly. And with these actors, in effect, putting on a show without resources, Lloyd is able to keep the pace up. Out go cumbersome scene changes, in comes the kind of minimal staging that galvanizes audiences into making connections, making the tension in the auditorium excitingly high.

The play’s structure is famously problematic from a dramatic point of view. The play, as it were, ravels up to the murders of Caesar and Cinna the Poet and then, as the plotters fall out with each other, unravels. Intellectually satisfying, it’s less than gripping in performance. But the dynamism of Lloyd’s staging (almost) solves that.

Not only are the all-important resentments between characters given vicious edge, the fight scenes have added shock thanks to expert work from fight director Kate Waters and movement director Ann Yee. And distancing battles-scenes are replaced by the immediacy of Gary Yershon’s screaming rock-music, played by the prisoners, that instantly conveys the fierceness and scale of fighting.

Actors playing at being prisoners can be wince-makingly inauthentic, but this company never gives off the air of middle-class actors slumming it. Lloyd’s casting is particularly cunning. Her highly experienced lead actors are complemented by actors from Clean Break, a legit company comprised of ex-offenders. Characterizations throughout are so vivid that even overlooked roles like Lucius (Charlotte Josephine) come into sharp focus.

Harriet Walter – an imperious Queen Elizabeth in Lloyd’s “Mary Stuart” in London and Gotham – is a Brutus magnificently wracked with doubt. Hers is, arguably, one of the performances that gains most from the cross-gender casting. Whether due to dramatic convention or genuinely “female” behavior, it’s a convention that women are able to reveal a depth of emotion that in men would appear highly unusual. Walter grabs the opportunities of the role with both hands to vivid effect. She’s matched by Jenny Jules’ visceral Cassius, alert to opportunity, quick to judgement.

Aware that even their performances cannot stop their lengthy showdown scene from running out of steam, Lloyd has the admirable nerve to have Walter break out of character and harangue her fellow actors for not paying attention. Ironically, that glues audiences to the remainder of the scene.

There is some over-strident playing and occasionally the balance between the text and the enormous possibilities of the prison-frame goes awry. But the sweep of the exhilaratingly confident production carries everything aloft.

Julius Caesar

Donmar Warehouse, London; 251 seats; £35 $56 top

Production

A Donmar Warehouse presentation of play in one act by William Shakespeare. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Bunny Christie; lighting, Neil Austin; sound, Tom Gibbons; music, Gary Yershon; movement, Ann Yee; production stage management, Emma Basilico. Opened, Dec. 4, 2012, reviewed Dec. 6. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Caesar -- Frances Barber
Brutus -- Harriet Walter
Cassius -- Jenny Jules
Mark Antony -- Cush Jumbo
Portia, Octavius Caesar -- Claire Dunne
Casca -- Ishia Bennison
Calpurnia, Metellus Cimber -- Jade Anouka
With: Alice Bell, Helen Cripps, Jen Joseph, Charlotte Josephine, Irene Ketikidi, Carrie Rock, Carolina Valdes, Danielle Ward.

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