Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film

84. Phyllidia Lloyd’s Julius Caesar (Part 1 of The Donmar Warehouse’s All-Female Shakespeare Trilogy), 2018

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Last time I discussed Phyllidia Lloyd’s Tempest, and I am glad I watched these out of sequence. This all-woman cast of Caesar isn’t a bad Caesar—but I do think that Caesar is not an especially strong play. Brutus is such a wet blanket, even when portrayed by Harriet Walter. There are no compelling villains or heroes in this play, with the possible exception of Marc Antony (played wonderfully by Jade Anouka), but apart from one soliloquy and of course Caesar’s funeral oration, Marc Antony doesn’t have much to do.

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In my last post, I discussed the oddness of the setting of Lloyd’s Tempest—the play is set in a prison, but in a reality that bleeds in and out of that incarcerated reality. Caesar is more securely set as a prison production. The disruptions of the prison setting can be jarring, in ways that are mostly good for the play. For Shakespeare fiends who’ve seen too many productions, The Donmar Trilogy refreshes the plays that would be deleterious for newcomers.

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The prison setting works well for the politics of Caesar, this closed-system of power dynamics. Truth be told, the production is merely all right until Caesar is killed around the middle of the play. The political rationale for the assassination does not diminish its brutality, each senator approaching the dictator for a stab or two to drive the body upward. And as prisoners might, they made Caesar drink bleach. (Noble Brutus doesn’t seem to notice.)

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The second half is much better, since it has the Marc Antony bits, plus Brutus must confront the reality of what he has wrought in the only scenes in which the character becomes sublime. The haunting by Caesar is especially memorable. The battle scenes are rendered as a something like a heavy metal video, conceptualizing Rome’s civil war in a facile way that moves the story along and doesn’t draw attention to the limitations of the stage, or the gym where this was performed.

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Of course, Shakespeare was faced with how to end a play about the limits of ethos and power, and old as I am I wasn’t at the original production. The Donmar Trilogy ending, though, finds a delightful, painful way to undermine the ascension of Caesar’s heir, Augustus.


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John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.