Review - Shakespeare's sexual revolution

14th December 2012 at 00:00

"It's not the men missed, so much as the opportunity," I wrote in my notepad. Then I congratulated myself on a pithy statement, well-made. The only problem was that, halfway through the all-female production of Julius Caesar at London's Donmar Warehouse, this was no longer true.

The first half of the play was, frankly, a bit baffling. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, fresh from The Iron Lady, it was set in what initially appeared to be a prison. Or maybe a Cold War-era barracks. Or maybe something else entirely.

Still, the cast was uniformly excellent: the lack of Y chromosomes was irrelevant. In particular, Harriet Walter as Brutus crammed more emotion into Caesar's death scene than most people fit into a lifetime.

But it was not entirely clear what was to be gained by the absence of men. There was no playing with notions of gender: the women were, very definitely, playing men. The relationship between Brutus and his wife, which could have been a nice way to examine roles within same-sex marriage, was played straight, in all senses.

Then something happened. Round about the point when Mark Antony addressed his friends, Romans and countrymen, everything shifted. Cush Jumbo (pictured) delivered the speech pitch-perfectly. And just as Mark Antony turns around his audience, so too the play was turned around.

It suddenly became very clear that we were watching a prison-theatre play within a play. Sure, this is not the best possible explanation for an all-female cast. But it gave context to the staging and an additional level of pathos - much of this, again, down to the resplendent Walter.

From here on in, everything came together. There were moments of psychological brilliance. When Caesar's ghost appeared to Brutus, for example, he cut into a dream-dance the latter was sharing with his dead wife. And I defy anyone to watch the mob attack Cinna the poet for the crime of sharing a name with Cinna the conspirator and not think of the paediatrician targeted in the wake of Sarah Payne's death.

Obviously, there is nothing new in Shakespeare's ability to write. But somehow this particular version managed to highlight everything that is astonishing about the play. I still think there could have been more toying with notions of gender. But watching women play men is an interesting exercise in itself, and a welcome opportunity to give talented actors the Shakespearean roles they deserve.

The second half of Julius Caesar was, quite simply, one of the best pieces of theatre I have ever seen. I did not want it to end. When it did, I wanted it to start again. Friends, Romans, countrymen. Lend it your ears.

Julius Caesar, Donmar Warehouse, London, until 9 February.

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