by Carl Pierer
At this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival, Donmar Warehouse presented a filmed version of their Julius Caesar. The all-female adaption of Shakespeare's play is set in a prison with the cast including both professional actors and (former) inmates. It has received much critical acclaim, travelling internationally. Now it has been made available to a wider audience through a record on film.
It may seem a formidable challenge to put on screen a theatre production, even more so if much of its force is derived from the setting in a high-security prison. The theatrical audience is always where the camera should be, the director Phyllida Lloyd said. Yet, through the use of Go-Pros, iPhones and drones, intimate perspectives are possible to which the theatre audience does not have access. The film succeeds in not making the screen viewers feel secondary to the live audience.
Julius Caesar is perhaps one of Shakespeare's most macho plays. The daring step to have an all-female cast ensured that more than a few eyebrows were raised; perhaps predictably, the Telegraph's critic was unimpressed[i]. Each actor has two characters on stage, an inmate and a person in the play. The inmates are all supposed to be female, whilst the vast majority of Shakespeare's characters are male. The audience is aware of the fact that all the actors really are female. These three layers work together to create a unique impression. For here the inmates in their prison clothing have been stripped of their sexuality and yet we know that this is an all-female cast, which makes us encounter the actors as well as their characters in their sexual ambiguity. Lloyd claims that this "(…) was a way of immediately de-sexing the women, because, actually, they were neither men nor women. They were humans."[ii] This certainly applies to the prison characters.
This setting is further justified through the self-perception of the characters: under Caesar, they see themselves held prisoners. They complain about their captivity, their speech and every move is controlled by the aspiring dictator. The feel closely observed and dominated, his assassination thus becoming an act of personal liberation. The identification of Caesar with a prison is thus a clear but brilliant making explicit of the already present metaphors.
It is then not too surprising that at around the same time a similar project was taken up, independently, by the Taviani brothers in Italy. Their film Caesar Must Die, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale in 2012, was reaching London just as the Donmar production was in its final preparations. Caesar Must Die is half documentary, half scripted depiction of a production of Shakespeare's play at the high-security Rebibia prison near Rome. This film is very different in style from Lloyd's. It features an all-male cast, recruited from the inmates at Rebibia (ranging from mafia associates to convicted murderers), and is shot in black and white, except for the opening and the closing scene showing takes from the live performance. The focus here, naturally, is much more on the prisoner's interaction and identification with the play as we are shown scenes from the casting through the rehearsals to the final staging.
The interplay between the inmates ‘real' and the characters felt imprisonment is underlined by a mix of scenes from rehearsals as well as everyday scenes from the actors' ‘real' life at Rebibia. Even though the scenes that are meant to be spontaneous, which break the artificial frame of the play, feel (and are) scripted, this is not to be mistaken for poor acting. Much like the decision to shoot in black and white – colour, the Taviani brothers claim, is realistic while black and white is "a sort of violence against naturalism"[iii] – this unnatural behaviour of the actors once they drop the act draws attention to the fact that what we see on screen is still a film. It is ‘reality' in scare-quotes. Yet it is precisely these two levels of filmic reality that give the film its haunting power. Because we learn on the one side about the actors and their backstories, albeit only in rough sketches we learn that some are murderers or high up in the mafia hierarchy, the criminal tropes cast an innovative light on the fragments of Shakespeare's play.
It was stated above that this is perhaps Shakespeare's most macho play. Both films provide very different takes on masculinity: the former makes Caesar a boastful adolescent, controlling a gang of admiring peers. The latter makes him a dignified, calculating Mafia boss à la Marlon Brando. These two conceptions of Caesar – and by extension, we are lead to suppose, the prison – define the space of masculinity for the remaining characters.
Lloyd's production is full of youthful energy: actors running around the scene, jumping, with a backdrop of an electric guitar and a drum set. The actors own the stage by using every centimetre of it. Caesar is expressing his power in a way we are used to see boys do it: Cassius is humiliated by being force-fed a doughnut, and Caesar mockingly gestures towards Mark Anthony's private parts. Most unsettling however, in a brilliant performance of Caesar, is Jackie Clune's smile. It conveys perfectly the tyrant's arrogance, his sense of superiority and utter control. It is a smile that betrays the very superiority it is meant to express, for it is a smile you would not see on the face of somebody more experience, more serene and surer of his control.
Similarly, Jade Anouka's Mark Antony is brimming with energy. Moving from extending friendship to Caesar's assassins right after the act, through a temporary brilliance as orator and controlling the public mind, to antagonism and submission to Clare Dunne's Octavius, Antony jumps, runs and gestures wildly, yet appropriately. Despite the fact that he feels very young, he does not feel immature, rather cast into the spotlight of power through his mentor's untimely death. Harriett Watt's outstanding performance shows a Brutus full of doubts and empathy, truly wishing for the best. Hers is perhaps the least juvenile, the most reflective person on stage.
The Taviani's adaptation, in contrast, is much more settled and serene in its portrayal of masculinity. The actors and their characters are men, formed and comforting to a traditional conception of the masculine: strong, authoritative, and dominating. Giovani Arcuri's Caesar is already physical commanding a lot of space. His presence is apt to fill a room, his unexcited, calmly delivered lines suggest a superior confidence in his powers. Brutus, played by Salvatore Striano, in contrast does not display physical strength – being one of the shorter and not broad-shouldered characters on screen, but has a certain dreamy appeal. There is a parallel here to the Donmar production, with both Bruti opposing a thoughtful vision to the physically conquering and dominating Caesari.
Another, perhaps curious commonality in both adaptations is the use of dialect. In the Tavianis' film, the actors are asked to adapt the Italian translation of the play to their own dialects. Standard Italian thus gets mixed with local idioms for a dramatic effect, adding to the mafia trope. In Lloyd's adaptation, the actors speak with their various dialects, ranging from Scottish to standard BBC English. This idea is more developed in Cesare devve morire, up to the point where the now twice-translated text differs strongly from the original, but it has the effect that the actors seem to make the words their own[iv]. Since in both productions, there are two levels of characters (inmates and roles in the play), this makes the ‘real' world of the prison more authentic.
Lloyd claims for her production that "It was about ‘How do we free the audience and keep them from thinking about gender change.' I didn't want it to be conceptually laden. I wanted to stop you from thinking of girls and boys and just think of the character."[v] It is not quite clear in as far this was successful. Throughout the play it does work, the audience can forget about the fact that these are women playing what are supposed to be men. But there are some deeper questions that surface through the gender change: are we, subconsciously, understanding the Roman characters to be young males because the play, and history, tells us that these have to be male? Or do we, implicitly, understand the ‘neutrality' of track-suits and prison clothing to be somehow masculine?
The choice of both productions to stage Julius Caesar in a prison setting lets us, on the one hand, use Shakespeare's play to illuminate our penal institutions, and, on the other, to see the fight against tyranny as an experience mirrored by the lives of prisoners. Moreover, both, through the choice of cast (all-female in one case, abundant with mafia clichés in the other) become meditations on masculinity. It is the confined space of the prison, the de-sexed prison clothes that allow a direct grasp on the (male) assertions of authority.
[iii] Calbi, M.: "‘In States Unborn and Accents Yet Unknown': Spectral Shakespeare in Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's Cesare devve morire (Caesar must die)"
[iv] See ibid. for more on this aspect of Caesar must die.