This afternoon, I saw the Donmar Warehouse all-female production of Julius Caesar at St Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn. I really think that, if anything, the Times review was not laudatory enough.
From the moment we audience members were herded into a bleak, cavernous receiving room, hemmed in by guards and watched as if not entirely to be trusted, the production's conceit that we were attending a production at a women's prison was credibly and consistently maintained. At various times, that conceit surfaced, whether to allow for a moment of humor (perfectly played by Harriet Walter, who starred as Brutus), or to infuse a cruel intensity to the Cinna the Poet scene, the conceit served the play throughout, adding layers of meaning.
The cast was remarkable; without wishing to dispraise any member, I was especially impressed by Jenny Jules's Cassius and Susan Brown's Casca. And Claire Dunn, doubling effectively as Octavius and Portia, took two roles that can, if not handled just so, seem weak in comparison to the higher octane characters on stage, and made them formidable in different ways. (Also, she speaks verse so naturally that it seems utterly spontaneous, and her own.) Not to mention Cush Jumbo's manipulative, sometimes epicene, sometimes steel-hard, Mark Antony, who drew laughs of recognition of the various rhetorical moves in the famous "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" speech without losing any of its intensity. She neatly let us know that she knew that we knew all of the various manipulations she was performing--and dared us not to fall for them, anyway.
But, I must confess, for me the play belonged to the two titanic figures at its center. Harriet Walter's Brutus was superbly a man of honor, and not a pompous windbag (as the role can degenerate into); she inhabited so completely the inmate inhabiting the Roman that it was hard to know where one began and one ended. Ms. Walter's face was drawn, ascetic, and strong throughout; she used her lanky physicality to create both a dangerous woman and an equally dangerous man, each of whom was haunted by conscience.
And Frances Barber's Caesar? Deglamorized by the conceit, Ms. Barber was by turns jovially bullying, charismatic, commanding, and cruel. She depicted a Caesar whom Ms. Walter's Brutus could truly love--and yet see as a tyrant "in the egg." Her calling out of Cassius, her effectively jocular strutting with her gang, all carried absolute conviction--but nothing more than her last laugh before uttering the play's most famous line.
After the doors had slammed, with the inmates back in lockdown, but before the curtain call, a lone audience member strayed across the stage area in a motorized wheelchair. The cast came out as she crossed to receive a standing ovation. Brutus gracefully disengaged and avoided the lady; Julius Caesar paused, checking his advance to let her pass, with the sort of benevolent, if dangerous, smile Cassius was wont to receive earlier on.
Now that's acting.