Fair warning: It’s not your standard entrance to the theatre space either. The crowd gathers in the aromatic coffee shop next door to pick up tickets, then masses in front of a loading dock’s corrugated metal door waiting to enter. We wait a long time. When we finally get in there, the audience is treated like visitors to a women’s prison, with lots of rules — though no pat-downs.
|The masks of Julius Caesar|
It’s past eight (which the officious email that had gone out to ticketholders said was curtain time — no latecomers allowed in!) when that big metal door rolls shut a second time, and a different door opens. Gray-clad women enter, and the action begins. We are rapt, captive not just because the scary corrugated doors are noisily closed and guarded. Physically, emotionally, intellectually, we are captivated. Perhaps a little nervous.
The female prisoners are broken, shuffling creatures, weighed down by the incarceration and the hierarchy of the prison population. They are mean to one another, small cruelties at first, ready to explode any moment. The women show new life as they take on the characters of the play, changing no words to fit their gender (although, running a little over two hours, this script has been heavily and well edited). It’s still Rome, they’re still “men.” Besides cutting scenes in their entirety, the 35 named characters of the play are whittled down to 20 as played by the company of 14 women.
The opening scene features women holding masks before their faces — the masks all the same photograph of Frances Barber as Julius Caesar. The opening scene of the original script is accomplished very quickly without any of the text, just behavior and those creepy masks. There are occasional insertions reminding us where we are. Like those gray sweats, although the attempt to make all the women alike and equally downtrodden does not entirely succeed. They are individuals, some willingly submissive, some frightened to be otherwise. Each one comes to vibrant and sometimes violent life as citizens and senators of Rome. The time is now, and the music is rock, driven by a bass guitar and drum set. Harsh, loud, percussive.
Harriet Walter’s brittle Brutus is stuck in her head — his head? — overthinks, tries to be upright, and spells doom to his cause and comrades. Frances Barber’s Julius Caesar is a bully (which makes even more sense at the play’s end, which I won’t spoil), easily scarier than any man I’ve seen in the role. Jenny Jules’ Cassius is lean and hungry, spoiling for a fight. Cush Jumbo is a smooth and moving Mark Antony, and Susan Brown a cunning and repressed Casca.
Scenes are pared down to the bone, sharp, concise. Things are not all orderly, there are shouts, a bloodied nose, a substitution of one prisoner for another to move the play forward to its inevitable end. At one point a guard yells out “Meds!” offering a flash of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
I’ve seen quite a few productions of this play and directed a staged reading of it once, also with an all woman cast. I heard then how different all those famous speeches sound in a woman’s voice, from a female state of mind, a woman’s heart. At St. Ann’s Warehouse, the language is as fresh and new as the interpretations. This Julius Caesar is totally different while equally tragic. It is harsh and no one wins.
This is a limited run, only to November 3, yet it’s not sold out — I highly recommend you run to catch this excellent, rather thrilling production.
~ Molly Matera, signing off to re-read the play, hoping to hear those marvelous words and phrases in my head.