The Donmar, starkly decked out as a women’s jail, gave me an eerie flashback to when I briefly taught drama in Holloway Prison (an unlikely prospect, I know)… if only the students had been as talented and committed as this lot. Julius Caesar is a play I often find undercast – probably it’s a bit too much of an ensemble piece and the big fellas never want to do it; no such problem here, with a company of high calibre female actors. It’s an explosive production of (far too many) ideas, full of vigour and punch, but it is the casting that makes you constantly re-examine the play. Utterly masculine in energy and delivery, the male characters’ angers and affections, their allegiances and betrayals are given fresh life on the female actor’s lips. Jenny Jules is intense and focussed, Frances Barber crude, louche and bullish, Cush Jumbo is an unnerving, compelling zealot and Harriet Walter a confusion of agonised emotion and masculine restraint.
Being the fine actors they are, vanity flies out the window and the true, bloody ugliness of the text and the ferocity of politically motivated men of war oozes out. The balaclava-clad battle scenes evoke Pussy Riot’s protest that sent them to jail; if only their jailers would allow those women to explore the motivations of their captors to a similar degree.