Friends, Romans, theater-goers. Lend me your cellphones. And any sharp metal objects that might be used as shivs. The clever conceit of director Phyllida Lloyd’s provocative production of Julius Caesar, playing at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse through Nov. 3 after a run last year at London’s Donmar Warehouse, is that the performance is taking place at an unnamed women’s prison, with inmates making up virtually the entire cast. (The audience is escorted by ”guards” into the the theater in large groups, with garage doors opening and closing behind them to give the impression of security.)
This is no play-within-a-play. We never get the backstory of the inmates; and virtually all of the text is William Shakespeare’s. But there’s a special fillip to the staged fights and the talk of honor and duty that owes as much to the prison setting as it does to the gender of the cast. Certainly, there’s an ironic charge when Roman conspirator Cinna (Meline Danielewicz) cries out after Caesar’s assassination, ”Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!” Could orange be the new Bard?
Harriet Walter, who earned a Tony nomination in 2009 for the title role in the period drama Mary Stuart (also under Lloyd’s direction), makes a strikingly butch impression as the deeply conflicted Brutus. Typically seen as the antihero of Shakespeare’s play (despite the title), Walter is a spliff-lighting, chest-thumping study of a man who gradually builds to a moment of violent resolve, and then comes to regret his boldness. She seems to represent any number of outwardly tough, but inwardly vulnerable figures who get caught up on the wrong side of the legal system.
Frances Barber strikes an imposing figure as Caesar, donning a rakish beret and making out with Mark Antony (Cush Jumbo) early on to signal where Antony’s loyalties lie. Indeed, Antony begins delivering his ”Friends, Romans…” speech lying face-forward on the ground, surrounded by a restless hoodie-wearing mob with toy guns pointed at him; it’s only gradually that Antony is able to rise and win them over to turn on the anti-Caesar conspirators. The weakest link among the main players is Jenny Jules as an overly broad, chair-tossing Cassius, the schemer who lures Brutus to join in the assassination plot.
Lloyd taps other modern touches for her production: The soothsayer (Carrie Rock) wheels out in a doll-laden tricycle, like an eerie refugee from The Shining’s Overlook Hotel; the battle of Phillippi unfolds with live punk-rock power chords featuring Cinna the Poet (Helen Cripps) on drums; and an onstage videographer records several crucial scenes that are projected on the back wall, including the assassination of Caesar (then seated in the first row of the audience) by stabbing and the pouring of Liquid Dran-o down his throat.
As with many high-concept Shakespeare productions, Lloyd can stretch her gimmick to the breaking point. There are too many cutaway reminders of the prison setting, particularly in the second half. (The show runs two hours without intermission.) But this is a bracing approach to a familiar story, one that challenges us to consider the words of Brutus’ wife Portia anew: ”Think you I am no stronger than my sex…?” As these ladies prove, women can be every bit as strong — and brutal — in letting slip the dogs of war. B+