stage dive

Theater Review: Julius Caesar Is Occasionally Unhinged, But Demonically Fun

Harriet Walter in Julius Caesar

Stars or selves? Which is to blame for the extreme political dysfunction that roils Julius Caesar? In this demonically fun, punk-pugnacious, occasionally unhinged all-female import from London’s Donmar Warehouse, director Phyllida Lloyd wades into the play’s ancient debate of power, legitimacy, and spin with a perspective informed by the U.K’s post-7/7 “ring of steel” years. (The audience enters through an unsettling cattle chute, with metal rolling doors pushing us through a CCTV-surveilled corridor.) Lloyd’s aspirants, combatants, and loyal retainers are all inmates of a women’s prison, where the question of who’s really in charge — popular rabble-rouser and would-be god-king Caesar (a fierce Frances Barber, strutting like a bantam cock), tormented small-d democrat Brutus (Harriet Walter, grave and barbed-wire tense), or flashy flesh-presser Mark Antony (a smoldering Cush Jumbo) — only points to the bigger mystery: Who’s allowed to be in charge? Neither our stars nor ourselves — not our fates, not our wills — count for much when we’re under a concrete slab, Lloyd implies, and her ferocious cast quietly underlines this point with joyously unquiet performances. Gary Yershon’s live-performed rock score and Ann Yee’s movement create a vibrating architecture of very controlled chaos.

Nervous shivers of race and gender domination run just beneath the show’s skin (while plenty of over-the-top atmospherics, like a dog-act submissive on a leash and a doll-eyed soothsayer riding a Saw-esque trike, are tattooed on its surface), but this isn’t a show about how women dominate other women, or Who Gets to Be the Man, or anything half so simple. The gender-flip isn’t polemical; it’s clarifying. And though she’s deploying a none-too-subtle “inmates run the asylum (or do they?!)” conceit deployed by many directors, Lloyd uses it to thrilling effect here, teasing out the play’s deeper misanthropy, its anti-revolutionary despair and wounded cynicism. If you’ve been unwise enough to follow the news lately, and you need a good scream at the broken machine, you may have found your rage cage. For here’s a Caesar that doesn’t even need balls; it’s got gall.

Theater Review: The All-Female Julius Caesar