Rome under Caesar is Holloway Prison, and the inmates are putting on a protest show. It’s a case of 22 jail birds, one guvnor, and the cages are rattling with the sound of tin trays and loud music. After Gregory Doran’s all-black RSC Julius Caesar, here comes the dressed-down Clare Boothe Luce version, the Lupercal lock-up.
“Let me have men around me that are fat,” shouts Frances Barber’s slobby dictator, launching a pizza party. Phyllida Lloyd’s production of a cleverly edited text is an absolute blast, and it certainly puts the skids under imperial male power and politics.
Harriet Walter is a tortured, brilliant Brutus, the very heart of the show, giving an absolute master class in supple Shakespearean speaking, Jenny Jules a candescent Cassius and Ishia Bennison a wonderfully straight-talking, no-nonsense Casca, purest of the conspirators.
But is the exercise any more than a feminist fight-back for women in Shakespeare, merely a grungy, butch re-run, with grey dungarees and hoods (and much better lines) of Prisoner Cell Block 45 BC?
The scenes between Brutus and Portia, Caesar and Calpurnia, are new-minted, Clare Dunne as an Irish Portia particularly fine, reincarnated as a brutal Octavius Caesar, while a naked, infantilised soothsayer (Carrie Rock) wanders over the battlefield with her infant.
Cush Jumbo’s explosive Mark Antony is a genuine androgyne, the assassination a shockingly ‘public’ event, with house lights up, the stark grey prison revealed in all its grimy reality of black balaclavas, toy machine guns, orange boxes and wailing rock guitars. But only female assassins would taunt a dictator with a paper crown in a Tupperware box, surely.