July 14, 2017, by Peter Kirwan

Julius Caesar (Donmar/Illuminations) @ The Broadway, Nottingham

I missed all performances of Phyllida Lloyd’s Shakespeare Trilogy when they originally played at the Donmar and, latterly, King’s Cross, so I was thrilled to hear that they would be coming to cinemas. The suddenness of Julius Caesar’s appearance, and the relative lack of marketing, were hugely disappointing, however. Whereas NT Live and Live from Stratford-upon-Avon pack out the enormous Screen 1 at Nottingham’s Broadway cinema, Julius Caesar played in Screen 3 to a relative handful of patrons. It’s a shame, as this was one of the most daring, innovative and politically exciting Shakespeare theatre productions to be converted to the screen in some time, and its formal and interpretive experiments need to be seen.

I’m already confused about tense; as regular readers will know, I review films in the present tense and live performances in the past. For this, I go with the present: although mostly taking place in front of a live audience, two separate performances were used (even though the Globe does this, I was surprised at how distracting I found the continuity differences, particularly when Jackie Clune’s Caesar sat between audience members who changed from shot to shot), and the programme implies that some additional work was done with hand-held cameras to supplement and ‘break up the formality’ of the live material. What emerges is something snappier and more aggressively edited than the live broadcasts, but more rooted in the live moment than, say, Greg Doran’s Julius Caesar of 2012, the closest analogue I can think of for the work done here. The film that results in fact has something of a documentary feel, appropriate to the framing conceit of women performing the play in prison, in a way that surprisingly evokes Caesar Must Die.

Like Caesar Must Die, Lloyd’s production is framed as a group of prisoners performing a version of Julius Caesar. Caesar Must Die features (I believe) real prisoners, but performing fictionalised versions of themselves in a kind of docu-drama. In Julius Caesar, a collaboration with Clean Break Theatre Company, an all-female company including some former prisoners imagines a prisoner-led performance of Julius Caesar taking place within a cage, the audience on four sides ensuring the prisoners/performers are fully exposed. Guards march the women into the space at the start of the performance, forcing them to line up before they begin their performance. The aesthetic is DIY throughout – the women drink Ribena instead of wine, roll bundles under their clothes to signify pregnancies, and smash their weapons against the bars of the prison to create a cacophony that blurs the boundary between performed rebellion and prison riot.

I’m torn on the effectiveness of the frame. In some respects it is extremely powerful; Harriet Walter’s sobbing at the conclusion of the performance, interrupted by the call of guards for lights out, rails against a system that prevents them from fully expressing themselves, and the caged-up quality of the performance creates a claustrophobia that turns the implications of characters’ actions immediately back in on themselves. The prison setting appropriately features an ethnically, physically and linguistically diverse cast (though it is a shame that an external rationale should in any way seem necessary for featuring so many women of colour onstage), and the thug-like alliance formed by the conspirators works perfectly (as well as effectively distinguishing the different conspirators more effectively than I have ever seen on stage). But the concept is also half-baked. Walter’s complaint that they weren’t allowed to finish makes no sense at the end of a production that has finished (unless they were planning to run straight into Antony and Cleopatra). What makes Caesar Must Die so powerful is the efficient evocation of the prisoners’ back stories and what performing the roles means to them, but here there is no sense of who these women are, why they are performing the play, or what it means to them. The prison world interrupts occasionally; Karen Dunbar begins the Cinna the Poet scene before being called away for her meds by the guards, and when Shiloh Coke steps in, reading from the script, the unrehearsed lynching goes awry and results in her getting a bloodied nose, creating a moment of unpredictable tension that is sadly a one-off. Another moment, where Walter/Brutus snaps at two ‘actors’ chatting amongst themselves, is gratuitous, turning Cassius’s ‘I did not think you could have been so angry’ into a laugh line. I don’t think the fully realised backstage drama of something like Caesar Must Die is necessary, but the production never quite establishes the stakes of the prison, and Walter’s final complaints against the repressive system jar with the unexpectedly permissive treatment the prisoners have received for the previous two hours of riotous performance.

The only ‘prisoner’ who emerges as a character was Walter, whose commitment to the importance of the production, and role as elder statesperson in the prison environment, keeps the makeshift production on track. Of all the performances, hers is the one that seems to translate most poorly to screen; her power and authority are overbearing and shouty, whereas the smaller roles and lesser known actors show mesmerising subtlety.  Sheila Atim’s Lucius is a standout in this respect, her eyes showing fear and confusion first as Clare Dunne’s Portia barks nonsensical instructions at her, then later as Brutus pleads with her to kill her. The decision to conflate characters so that it is Lucius’s gun Brutus runs towards is only one of a number of decisions shared (nicked?) by the Sheffield Theatres production I reviewed last month, including the doubling of Portia and Brutus, and the beret-wearing rebels; here, it works to individualise the women and give them stronger, reinforced arcs.

I’m referring to ‘women’ and using female pronouns even though there is no gender reversal of characters. It’s the only strategy that feels appropriate to me given that the production foregrounds the female prisoners playing the roles, and the prison-drama genre that militates against total disappearance into character. Gendered pronouns are mere signifiers here; the prison environment in which all prisoners are equally restricted by their environment made ‘he’ and ‘she’ indicators effectively irrelevant. That isn’t to say that there aren’t power structures in the prison. Jackie Clune’s mesmerising Caesar has her followers wearing cut-out Caesar masks and marching in procession with her, and she seats herself among the audience to hear requests. She is charismatic, with a confident smile constantly playing across her face, and is firm in her decisions. Next to her, Zainab Hasan’s Calpurnia makes for a fascinating contrast, slight and emotionally free next to Caesar’s public restraint. When Casca enters to call Caesar to the senate, Calpurnia wraps a headscarf around her head and kneels on the floor obediently, but the camera captures her tears and fear in close-up, privileging her even while she is silenced.

The performances are uniformly strong. Clare Dunne, with strong Dublin accent, doubles as an angry, raging and pregnant Portia who stabs herself in the thigh in front of Brutus and demands to be heard as an equal; and as a terrifyingly pragmatic Octavius Caesar, who summarily executes her enemies and inserts herself in front of Antony during the final speech, recasting the narrative in favour of her own victory. Dunbar plays Casca as a brusque, sardonic Glaswegian, devastating in her put-downs but deathly serious  when the conspiracy begins. Leah Harvey is less well-served in a Soothsayer role that reduces her to riding a toy bicycle around the stage and cradling a creepy doll (another decision echoed in the Sheffield production), but gets a standout moment as she moves among the frozen conspirators, warning Caesar to watch each of them in turn. I was less convinced by casting Carolina Valdés as a dog, but as Cinna (and along with Hasan as Cimber and Jennifer Joseph as Trebonius) the conspirators generated a fantastic sense of interpersonal grievance and conflict, most notably when all ranged against Antony immediately post-murder.

The central pairing of Walter as Brutus and Martina Laird as Cassius is brilliantly cast, with Laird a threatening and insecure presence throughout. Cassius is passionate, disaffected, sullen; when Caesar refers to her ‘lean look’, she does so publicly, calling out the simmering rage of the character before forcing a doughnut into her mouth with some violence. The scene in which Brutus and Cassius discuss Portia’s death is brilliant, the contrast between Walter’s stoicism and Laird’s rage creating a genuinely tense atmosphere; Cassius’s subsequent expression at Brutus’s performance of nonchalance at the formal report is devastating. My real complaint about these scenes is the over-reliance on close-up. The film’s use of go-pros and hand-held cameras gives a gritty, intimate feel to the scenes, but as well as not serving Walter’s performance well (it’s just too close), the cross-cutting loses the space between the two where the energy crackles. This is, I think, a wider issue with filming stage performance – too often the tendency is to save wide shots for large group scenes and go down to close-up for duologues, when a two-person scene still needs its contextualisation within the space. But I digress.

The camerawork is mostly exciting, however, and varies pleasingly with the kind of scene. As with Doran’s Caesar, the murder of Cinna the Poet plays as a happy-slapping scene, with Cinna being caught on camera and beaten for the record. When Brutus, alone in her tent, dances with first the ghost of Portia in a wistful romance, and Portia is then replaced by the ghost of Caesar, the camera beautifully captures the movement and growing threat. At the play’s end, Brutus’s body is held up to a fixed camera by beret-wearing rebels, a message to the world of the change in regime. CCTV is played onto on-stage screens, the black and white images adding to the sense of surveillance and capturing the presence of bars, keeping the prison setting in view. Communication methods, as so often in this play, shape the effectiveness of the political moment.

No-one knows this more than Jade Anouka’s Antony. Following the murder of Caesar, the conspirators put on red gloves, and Brutus’s speech is almost swept aside in the movement of people before she hands over to Antony. Anouka begins her speech at gunpoint, prostrate on the floor and pleading for her right to speak in Caesar’s name. The stakes are never higher than at this moment, where Antony’s pleas that Brutus is an honourable man are directly life-saving, ensuring that she is able to stand up and complete her speech. She moves to steps, and the mob kneels before her. In other hands what follows might be trite or even camp, but Anouka’s sincere voice carries her through. As she speaks, she choreographs response, stabbing or raising her hands to elicit gasps, sighs, rage, clapping and even song from her audience. It’s a beautiful demonstration of crowd control, resulting in a riot that gallops through the tail end of the play, accompanied incongruously but thrillingly by a fierce live rock band.

Anouka is the heart of the prison, sharing kisses and embraces with several characters and providing a youthful, open energy that drives the action. When she is elbowed aside by Octavius in the closing moments, the camera stays with her as she smoulders at the side, preparing the ground for future conflict. Even if Walter’s outburst about having to go to bed feels tacked on, the briskness and clarity of the storytelling here, and the sense of more to come in the conflicts between these beautifully realised characters, lends itself to sympathy with the sense that this story isn’t done yet. Happily, Henry IV and The Tempest are also coming to cinemas, and with them the hope that the framing device will become more central as it connects the prisoners across three very different stories.

Posted in Film review