It makes sense, given the political tumult worldwide, that you’d see an uptick in productions of Julius Caesar. But many of this year’s haven’t been particularly politically minded: yes, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s all-black, pan-African production at BAM in April deliberately brought to mind that continent’s problems with civil war and tyranny, but the Italian film Caesar Must Die, which reached New York in February, was set in a men’s prison, and was more interested in “the real-life consequences of lies and betrayals among men who value power above all else,” according to its press materials, than it was about the power plays of the political class. Similarly, Donmar Warehouse’s all-female production, now at St. Ann’s Warehouse (through November 9), is set in a women’s prison, outside of the corridors of governance, instead pitching the machinations of gods and men and senators as the behavior of our lowest castes: not just convicts but women.
St. Ann’s temporary theater on Jay Street has been transformed into a correctional facility: the audience waits outside, let as large groups into a long white antechamber where ushers dressed as guards issue rules and regulations; signs on the walls warn of CCTVs in use and inform you there’s no cellphone use. (This is a modern production; the Ides warning comes from a trashy magazine.) Finally, a large steel gate is rolled up, revealing the theater. There’s no late seating; once that gate comes back down, the audience is locked in, just like the characters.
Those characters are prisoners putting on Caesar for their own enjoyment, like a game, a play as play. But it also leads to some tension, as when Brutus (Harriet Walter, anguish flooding from her eyes, angst from her tightened body) screamed at some women giggling behind a curtain to “shut the fuck up!” Or during the murder of Cinna the Poet, which seemed to spill into real violence: blood dribbling from Cinna’s nose, a screaming match between actors broken up by another. These moments seemed spontaneous, but I believe they were intentional, demonstrating that the characters are as raw, rowdy and rancorous as the characters they play.
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