It Takes a Real Dame to Show Brutus' Force — Harriet Walter and Phyllida Lloyd Talk All-Female Julius Caesar

By Harry Haun
04 Nov 2013

Harriet Walter in Mary Stuart.
Photo by Joan Marcus
Ah, that's the rub for Walters, the underuse of women in Shakespeare. "Of course, we have wonderful things to say, and they're deep, deep characters — but there aren't too many of them. That's the problem when you love Shakespeare — when you love tackling his ideas and his poetry — and you're relegated to these small roles — and there's almost an absence of these when you get past a certain age. It gets really hard, but this is a wonderful way of addressing that problem, I think."

Julius Caesar is the second Lloyd-Walter collaboration. Their first, a 2009 revival of Friedrich Schiller's Mary Stuart, got them Broadway billing and Tony nominations. (Walter's forceful portrayal of Elizabeth I put her on equal footing with title-player Janet McTeer in the Best Actress category.) Currently, Lloyd and Walter are contending for the 2013 London Evening Standard Theatre Awards for Julius Caesar.

And what would the Elizabeth she played in Mary Stuart make of this sisters-of-the-cellblock version of Julius Caesar? Walter paused a long, thoughtful beat, and said, "I have a feeling she'd be rather outraged. She was very much fighting for her corner in an all-male world, and the choice she made was to use her femininity in a very clever, very political way, so she might think that for women to actually ape men and pretend to be men would be bad because it had cost her so much to play the role she did and to maintain her virginity and her femininity against a lot of odds. She probably would feel that we were taking the easy way out or something."

Most prominently sharing the stage with Walter's Brutus are Frances Barber's Caesar, Jenny Jules' Cassius and Cush Jumbo's Mark Antony. The latter just picked up a 2013 UK Theatre Award for a performance she gave at the Royal Exchange Theatre between her Mark Antonys: the miserably married Nora of A Doll's House.

In one scene, she and Walter pull off a bit of "stage magic," with the help of Lloyd and her deputy directors of movement and fight. When Brutus presents Antony to the roiling mob, they moved in and seem to devour Brutus, and, when they move back, there's Antony prostrate on the floor, saying "Friends, Romans, countrymen."

"Everything grew organically out of our conversations and our improvisations and the logic of the setting," said Walter. "I don't feel that anything is out of place. I think one of the reasons that happens is that it illustrates very physically that Antony is meeting a hostile crowd, and, by the end, they're all on his side — that is the power of rhetoric — the power and mode of rhetoric on a crowd that is pretty simple and thoroughly interested in Caesar's will, what he gives them in his will, the material benefits. Then, in the very next scene Mark Antony says to Octavius, 'Let's see how we can limit the people's legacy.' The crowd has just been swayed, and it's tragic."