We walked into the prison. Bald neon strip-lights glared onto a grey common-room space. The walls were painted in a serviceable half and half fashion and as I sat down in my hard, plastic, prison-visiting-room-style chair I immediately became aware of an old sofa, a trolley of the kind I recall from my school dinners days, CCTV screens, two railed gallery-spaces, and an amplifier. There was much else besides, but the general impression was one of tired, lived-in, functionality. In the lighting and sound box I caught sight of the Deputy Stage Manager in prison uniform. The Donmar had installed within its studio a prison space where something playful was about to happen. We were the prison visitors.
The common room’s cell-door was unbolted stage right and a line of women inmates entered. One of them is pregnant. I noticed Harriet Walter and Frances Barber in the line-up. As soon as the door was closed the assembled company broke into a loud rock song – a blast of a sequence which included frenetic dancing, a warm-up for the action proper, which replaced the mood of jubilation in the opening ‘holiday’ section of Shakespeare’s play.
During the song we quickly became aware of an inmate hierarchy. Frances Barber became a self-appointed ring-leader; masks of her face were worn by the dancers. The music stopped and she read out a horoscope (Libra) from a magazine over a microphone to the assembly, ‘Beware the Ides of March'(1.2.19). We were then plunged into the dialogue between Cassius (Jenny Jules) and Brutus (Harriet Walter). Walter looked gaunt, drawn, and wirey in her prison clothes. Their intimate conversation crackled with passion and commitment as the pair shared their insights and feelings about Caesar. They expressed a longing for freedom which one sensed their prison selves might never know.
Caesar (Frances Barber) entered followed shortly by a Krispy Kreme doughnut delivery, which this Caesar opened on the line ‘Let me have men about me that are fat’ (1.2.193). The food was pounced upon and devoured by the inmates. And then came a moment of foregrounded sexuality. Caesar’s ‘Such men are dang-er-ous’ (1.2.196) was elongated and hissed against the resolutely-seated Cassius’s right cheek. Caesar then took a doughnut, broke it exactly in half, ate one part, kissed Cassius determinedly on the lips and then stuffed the other half of the doughnut in Cassius’s mouth. However we read this moment it expressed same-sex aggression among the two women prisoners and the two male characters they were playing. For me I saw female desire momentarily expressing itself but only being able to do so through the story and the prison hierarchy. There were many such resonating moments which served to amplify characterisation and put the play in fascinating dialogue with the production’s dual scenario of a women’s prison.
Walter as Brutus was compelling throughout. As emphatic as Caesar and Cassius were, this was really Brutus’s production. During the first dialogue with Cassius she sat with her legs apart sucking intermittently on a cigarette. Her vocal register was self-consciously lowered and her distinctive voice – like a finely-tuned reed instrument – was used to great effect freshly to mint Brutus’s lines and to convince us all of the turmoil of his feelings. I knew as I heard Brutus’s soliloquy beginning ‘It must be by his death’ unfold that I shouldn’t trust it (2.1.10-33), but Walter brought such immediacy to the lines, found within the sense such clear and surprising rhythms, that I was made to experience Brutus’s crisis of conscience as though for the very first time. We wanted this inmate to flourish as much as possible in the brutal world in which she was forced to live. When Brutus was making a pact with the other conspirators and they knelt before him, I saw in my mind’s eye Marcellus and Horatio swearing loyalty to Hamlet. This stage echo, coupled with Walter’s portrayal of Brutus’s interiority, made me start to hope that she might play Hamlet sometime.
Moment by moment it was abundantly clear that director Phyllida Lloyd (whose credits include the whole of the Ring cycle for English National Opera) really needed to stage Julius Caesar. Her production bodied forth may fresh and original moments. Caesar took a seat on the front row of the audience and was force-fed bleech from behind by Ishia Bennison’s Casca (a method of killing no doubt tried and tested by this inmate on the outside); the conspirators put on industrial red rubber-gloves to show their ‘bloody’ hands to the crowds; the crowd milled around during Brutus’s funeral oration, stopping to listen only when their ears were chained to the speaker by Shakespeare’s marvellous rhetoric; Caesar took her place at the drum-kit to produce the sound-effect for the gun-shots when Octavius’s (Clare Dunne) and Mark Antony’s (Cush Jumbo) shot their pricked-out-for-damnation prisoners; Portia’s ghost entered before Caesar’s in her wedding dress, Brutus embraced her and then she was replaced by Caesar’s ghost with whom Brutus, in a dream-like state, walzed a little (4.2); the Soothsayer wandered, naked, around the battlefield, holding a doll; Brutus tried twice to shoot himself during the confusion of the Battle of Philippi before seeking assistance.
The conceit of staging an all-female production set in a women’s prison included at least two significant interruptions in the action when the framing device broke into the story. The first came during the Cinna the poet scene. The prison guards came in and removed the inmate who had started to play the role. Another inmate was forced to ‘read’ the part instead (she held and read from the Oxford edition). Kate Waters’s fight sequences bristled with invention and when this second Cinna (Helen Kripps) was being torn for his bad verses (3.3.30-1) the fight, as it were became real, and the inmate screamed an interruption. The prison guards again entered and once the company had calmed down a little Frances Barber as the ring-leader inmate directed them to take up the action again. A later interruption came during the long tent scene between Brutus and Cassius at the point at which Shakespeare brings on a comic poet (18.104.22.168). Instead of a poet we had giggles from the company behind the thin sheet-like curtain used to represent the entrance to the tent. Walter’s inmate suddenly snapped, looking furiously behind the curtain to demand silence and exploding with the utterance ‘Christ’s sake! Wankers!’
The final act was judiciously abridged to tell clearly the story of the battle and the deaths of Cassius and Brutus. Mark Antony’s and Octavius’s final speeches were heightened as political-spin and broadcast live on the CCTV screens. We’ve all seen this before, but when did you see a Julius Caesar end with Casca interrupting the final, tightly controlled moments, only to be shot at close-range in the head?
And then the prison-guards interrupted. It was time for lock-up. Frances Barber’s inmate surprised us by suddenly appearing in guard uniform and taking her place next to the door as the prisoners lined-up to file out. It was at this culminating point that I began to reflect on how Shakespeare is often used for play and therapy in prisons. This community had been given permission to enact the ritualistic plotting and killing of one of the prison guards as Caesar.
Not everyone loved it. But for me this was urgent Shakespeare of a kind which I felt I hadn’t experienced in ages. There was no interval. We were told on entering that if we left at any point we would not be allowed back inside. The company seemed driven by a need to tell the story, to make us accept an all-female company that sought to break new-ground in mainstream theatre, and to show us that, even (or especially?) in prison, Shakespeare allows people to feel free on the inside.