First impression of Bunny Christie’s hugely altered stage and auditorium was stark and quite severe. The strip lighting gives a cold light and all the soft padded seating was replaced with plastic chairs. The stage itself was stripped down to an outline of a prison and the ceiling opened right up to the roof and including all the theatre gangway as part of the set. If this is not enough to shock, there are a few more potentially in this new production of Julius Caesar by Phyllida Lloyd with an all female cast. As the set suggested, we were in a women’s prison and what can be seen initially as a power struggle among the inmates mirroring the tragedy of Julius Caesar. But as the play develops, everything is not what it seems. Everything was under surveillance at all times; plainly plastic knifes and guns were used and the guards were helping out with the spot lighting. This could simply be a production of Julius Caesar put on by the women prisoners and we were the invited guests sitting on the temporary plastic seating watching their production. The audience were part of it and in a couple of instances, the seating area were used by the prisoners as part of their scene. This blurring of boundary extended to the characters themselves: they all seems like genuine convicts, first and foremost. The play in a prison device also helped with all the murder that took place in the play which otherwise be hard to explain easily in a supposedly secure environment.
The purpose of this elaborate construct was not entirely clear. There maybe a parallel with an ostensible power was in fact a subject of a greater power, in the case of a prison, the leader of the prisoners is still subjected to the greater power of the authority. Or all the power struggles and plottings are elaborate ploy for approval for the masses, as in the case of a cast of actors seeking approval of the audience members. The message was not entirely clear.
In terms of the performance, there were some which gave a performance with a feeling of the seasoned performer and others who gave a slightly more amateurish turn. This was not a criticism and it rather fit in the idea of a group of prisoners putting on a play. There were real conflict and sadness in Harriet Walter’s Brutus, where Frances Barber’s Caesar was loud and big and showed a real ownership of the place. Cush Jumbo felt genuine and sincere as Mark Anthony and Charlotte Josephine’s Lucius had a real sense of a streetwise and thuggish prisoner about her. Neil Austen use of mostly movable spotlight and hand held torches had the power to change the stark stage and gave it a somewhat amateur and secretive feel. This was a brave production and if the interpretation here is indeed correct, it was spot on. However, it wasn’t clear as to what it intends to achieve and could potentially give the impression of being unnecessarily over ambitious.