From the first moments of Phillida Lloyd’s all-woman production of Julius Caesar I knew I was in safe hands. A row of studied female prisoners was marched out, perfectly studied in the peculiar manifestations of gender in institutionalised women: quiffed, buzzed, or tied-back hair; swaggers, struts, and the careful movements of the self-contained ones, the ones with pent-up energy. Still, it was only when when the dialogue of Shakespeare’s play itself burst in and interrupted the cons’ politicking that I become conscious that I was in the presence of something extraordinary.
There is something deeply Shakespearian in the gender reversal employed here, something that became a touch of genius when set in a prison, where, as Caesar struts and Brutus and Cassius plot, screws stroll overhead shining torches and twirling their keys. Once, one conspirator was told to leave by a prison guard, forcibly removed by only a few words backed by systemic violence; her replacement fluffs her lines, and is theatrically beaten by the other inmates.
We are not watching the prisoners stage a play within a play, but a play within a cage; the bars of that cage are composed of gender, discipline and surveilance, and systemic gendered violence.
Nothing I say about the genius of its production can take away from the superb acting that allows it to work. Once immersed in the play itself the four figures around which action revolves take centre-stage: thumb-and-forefinger smoking Brutus, played by Harriet Walter with straightforward butch honesty, Jenny Jules’ loyal Cassius, agonisedly caught in a situation spiraling outside his control, the luminous charisma and tiger-like sexuality of Cush Jumbo’s (historically doomed) Marc Antony, and Clare Dunne’s Octavius (historically, later the first emperor Augustus), delivering calculatedly brutal violence with a Belfast accent.
Indeed, there was one stroke that I missed: Clare Dunne also plays the doomed, sacrificial Portia, occupying the dual role of eventual victor and first to die after Caesar; the ghost that Brutus later sees is Portia, and at the play’s end Portia dances nude around Brutus’ dying troops, bringing us back to considering the soldiers as sons and lovers, constituents of the families that can no longer be reproduced after the conspirators unleashing the unstoppable forces of struggle for state power.
Through their machinations the main characters come to embody these forces, and through the gendered habituses – usually unnoticed ways of dress and movement and social interaction – of the cast as well as the deft production touches of other cons spotlighting and filming them, the performativity of gender itself leaps into focus. Still, this isn’t a production about undoing gender, but about reproduction of violence, and the key, forever obscured fact that both are intimately tied in together.
It takes a lot to untie and tease out those links. In the light of recent British media mendacious foolishness around Suzanne Moore, in an era where the most visible manifestations of feminism are iterations of columnar idiocy, it is clearly required to emphasise that gender is both a socially, discursively imposed fact and a performance; something the murderous reaction to the inevitable moment when the first personally privileged, naive trans woman to have a womb surgically implanted will doubtless, sadly show.
As it is, this Caesar manages to shed light on those links too: this is indeed a “play within a cage”, with all action onstage being shaped by the whims of the screws, the reality of offstage power.
What it also does is bring out hidden elements of Shakespeare’s text: with the actors’ genders reversed, the genderedness of Brutus’ pre-battle confrontation with Cassius leaps into focus, and all Brutus’ talk of “heights” and “tides” becomes plainly his outfacing Cassius’ more cautious masculinity with his own. This then, as in the original, segues into Brutus’ surely implied homosexual liasion with the flute-playing Lucius, and it is after this that he sees Portia’s ghost, the ghost of the reproductive family he effectively killed when he murdered Caesar.
With the all-woman nature of the cast, something extraordinary happens to gender. Homosociality between men, with eroticism sublimed or barely visible, becomes outright homoeroticism. Indeed, the entire Roman aristocratic class, bonded through their masculinity, seem instead as though they are in an extended polyamorous relationship, a way of seeing homosociality which has almost certainly not been tried, and which suddenly seems worth trying.
At the play’s conclusion, the Roman soldiers fall dead one by one, danced around by the ghost of Portia, now carrying a baby. She silently asks and answers one question: how is society reproduced? Through violence. Then the screws announce lights out, and darkness falls.
Whatever one’s gender, I’d swear you’ll be left with two things: a lingering longing for the beauty of Cush Jumbo’s Marc Anthony, and a sense of juissance from the new-found ability to sensually trace and unpick the lines of engendering and violence in your own life and retold story.