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

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04 Nov 2013

Harriet Walter
Harriet Walter

Dame Harriet Walter and Phyllida Lloyd discuss taking on Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in an all-female ensemble.


Great Caesar's ghost has a particularly lively second life in the Julius Caesar that director Phyllida Lloyd has brought from London's Donmar Warehouse to Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse (where it will play through Nov. 9). He's present and accounted for every time one of his assassins gets his comeuppance. Otherwise — and ordinarily — Julius Caesar is a supporting player in the story of his own death.

Possibly you think the play belongs to Caesar's loyal young friend, Mark Antony, since he's the one who has the best lines and is the play's major game-changer.

That particular notion is seconded by the fact that M-G-M's all-star 1953 film rendering — generally regarded as the best and most faithful movie version of the play — had a top-billed, mumble-free Marlon Brando enunciating the role of Antony.

He spent weeks perfecting the character's speeches, listening to and studying every known recording of the part. Finally, he phoned his director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, to give a listen to the fruits of his diligent labors. When he finished, he asked Mankiewicz what he thought, and the disappointed director said, "I thought you sounded like June Allyson."

Decades later, on the "Today" show, Laurence Olivier said that he could detect some of his own voice and phrasing in Brando's delivery.

When it comes to demonstrating whose play it really is, there is nothing like a dame: Dame Harriet Walter, leading an all-female cast of 14, builds a strong, obvious and but-of-course case for Brutus. The true tragedy of Julius Caesar is his — a "noble" and "honorable" man, who gets corrupted by the perverse course of the body politic.

"Brutus is indecisive, but, when he does make decisions, Shakespeare seems to be saying, 'No, that's the wrong decision' — for the right reason," noted Walter. In his indecision and in his ambition, she can see he's part of the Bard brotherhood. "He feels related to Hamlet. He feels related to Macbeth. He has the most fantastic things to say, and he's very complex, so — although he was difficult to get hold of because he keeps contradicting himself all the time — I really quite relish playing him now."

This production came into being to celebrate the first time a pair of women assumed control of a major London theatre. Artistic director Josie Rourke and executive director Kate Pakenham asked Lloyd to create a little something for their inaugural season at the Donmar. "This led to the decision to do an all-female Shakespeare," said Lloyd, "but it was quite a while before I actually committed to Julius Caesar.

"I'd previously directed an all-female comedy at The Globe so I could see how the comedies were easily released into a very playful play by actually having either gender doing it — all-female or all-male — but I wanted to choose something that gave most women a chance to enter a play that they would never have entered. The idea you'd have women on stage calling out words like 'freedom,' 'liberty,' 'tyranny is dead' — they were actually in completely unknown territory. An audience would never have heard these words from the mouths of women in our classical theatre so I wanted to take as many of them as I could out of the romantic and the domestic."

She certainly did that, transplanting Caesar in a high-security women's prison where the inmates, flaunting so much testosterone they should be hosed down, vigorously and violently act out Shakespeare's saga of autonomy and rebellion — something they understood too well, because they are living it. Dressed drably in two shades of gray (charcoal and regulation gray), they go through the emotions of this congested power play until Reality intrudes. At various points, prison "screws" stop the play in its tracks, haul a rotten actor off to solitary and send in the understudy.


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