Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Outrageous liberty

On Saturday night I was at the Donmar, sitting on the world's slackest grey plastic chair, transfixed by the sight of Harriet Walter playing Brutus in an all-female production of Julius Caesar, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, late of Iron Lady and Mamma Mia film fame.

I've seen Edward Hall's all-male Shakespeare productions, and I seem to recall an all-male bard's production of Twelfth Night from Cheek by Jowl, starring Adrian Lester, in Paris a few years back. Very transgressive, to go back to the theatrical rules of the 16th and 17th century, and have boys playing girls. Very.

I have never seen an all-woman cast playing anything since I cast myself to play Macbeth in the lower sixth, shuddering and squealing manfully as Banquo staggered onto the stage.

I've certainly never seen an all-woman cast do a production of a resolutely macho, sickeningly violent Shakespeare play like Julius Caesar.

Now, I don't get out as much as I used to, and was perhaps irritatingly excited by the whole event anyway, but no amount of gimmickry will ever get me to sit up on the edge of my seat for two hours straight watching ladies shout, not even bingo. It would have to be something prett-y special to make me gasp and clutch the shoulder of the person next to me.

In the end, what was so radical about Cush Jumbo, Frances Barber, Harriet Walter and Jenny Jules et al in this production was that there WASN'T a radical, leftist, feminist, separatist, lesbian agenda. The play isn't about Wimmin's Issues at all. It was simply a bunch of super-talented people acting, making music, and moving us to tears. They just happened to be women.

It's still rare, I grant you, but the fact that it is possible for an off-West End theatre to give the green light to a production that is experimental in its staging and compelling in its energy and performed by women is a marker. Something has shifted.

Here's the visible sign of that shift. One of the actresses was playing the only female character, Portia, Brutus's wife. She appeared on stage with a cushion stuffed up her dress, and did her self-mutilating scene to try to persuade Brutus to reveal his worries to her by any means available.

So far so conventional. But when the same actress reappeared playing Octavius Caesar, a leading general, and still had the cushion stuffed up her costume, it finally dawned on the audience: she is actually pregnant in real life. But because life goes on during pregnancy (in every possible sense) this professional actress is still working. It didn't matter that the general had a bump, because she was acting. It's called 'suspension of disbelief'.

So imagine my surprise when I came home and read the Telegraph's review. I'm not going to link to it, I don't want it on my blog. But let me quote some of its highlights:
Shakespeare never, after all, believed that a single word he wrote would ever be uttered upon a stage by a woman, because the Lord Chamberlain had decreed that female parts could only be played by young men in drag. [My emphasis]
Gosh, did he really? What is mildly surprising is that Tim Walker, calm and moderate author of the review, feels that he has a direct dial to the mind of a man who died in 1616. Yes, I can well believe that Walker knows exactly what Shakespeare thought about women. Funny, isn't it, how many times Shakespeare stages gender confusion in his plays. Or how many references in Julius Caesar itself there are to 'womanish' feelings?  But obviously that kind of textual evidence for Shakespeare's complete awareness of, and play with, the travesties wrought by political correctness couldn't outweigh Tim Walker's unmediated communion with the Bard. We're lucky to have Tim.

And here is Walker's assessment of Lloyd's framework idea for the production:
Lloyd attempts to justify the outrageous liberty that she has taken with Julius Caesar by setting it against the backdrop of a women’s prison, where clearly the inmates have to make do with what they’ve got when they set about putting on a special production of the tragedy. It is an absurd contrivance which serves only to demonstrate quite how imprisoned the director is by a patently daft idea, if not also her political correctness and vanity. 
Yes, 'clearly' they had to make do with just a few props, thereby revealing that they aren't proper actors.

Mmmm, few props, just like Shakespeare. Or travelling Mummers. Or most theatre that doesn't rely on big-budget sets and costumes for its effect.

Two of the actresses come from Clean Break Theatre Company, and have served time. Maybe theatre has helped them. I wouldn't know. I hope so. But setting the production of the play inside a prison, thus making it hard for the audience to reconcile whether they are fellow prisoners or voyeurs, and then revealing the woman playing Caesar as a prisoner officer at the end, were, to my mind, fantastic devices for revealing that the play isn't about men, but about power.

What an outrageous liberty.

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