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Julius Caesar

William Shakespeare
Donmar Warehouse

Jade Anouka as Metellus Cimber, Frances Barber as Julius Caesar and Ishia Bennison as Casca Credit: Helen Maybanks
Harriet Walter as Brutus, Jade Anouka as Metellus Cimber, Jenny Jules as Cassius, Carolina Valdes Credit: Helen Maybanks
Jenny Jules as Cassius Credit: Helen Maybanks

It is sometimes easy to believe that there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to what can be done on a stage after a couple of thousand years of performance.

Phyllida Lloyd has almost certainly proved that adage wrong with this truly exhilarating variation of Shakespeare's exploration of politics Roman style.

To start with, the cast is entirely female, a concept that should be more common given the Globe's all-male double bill currently running at the Apollo and the work of Edward Hall with Propeller.

To compound the ingenuity, Miss Lloyd has set the play amongst the toughest incumbents of a women's prison, presumably the lifers.

Just in case anyone is in doubt about the intentions of this auteuse, the production starts with heavy rock music and by the end has very appropriately descended into the anarchic chaos of thrash metal, played by a quartet of the actresses.

This may all sound silly but the drama is played very seriously, with only the odd bit of modernist deconstruction to lighten the mood.

It has to be said that the acting is not what one might expect from the finest that a secure prison could put together.

As Caesar, Frances Barber seems the hardest nut of all, a diminutive, strutting Napoleon filled with ambition and very short on humility, as all the best dictators are.

Ignoring the horoscope prediction for the ides of March, she falls prey to those that she has antagonised. The conspirators are led by Harriet Walter as a well-spoken, thoughtful Brutus (perhaps a white collar criminal?).

Looking and acting uncannily like Sir Ian McKellen, she gets great support from Brutus's much more aggressive brother Cassius, Jenny Jules malignantly revelling in a role that rarely seems this central.

The deed is carried out, much to the alarm of JC's neighbours, in the front row of the stalls. This Caesar hangs around though, like Banquo or Hamlet Snr, until the end of the two hours, which feel much shorter such is the energy.

Long before that, the murderers meet their match in the seemingly lightweight Mark Anthony. However, from the moment that she begins her Friends Romans Countrymen speech, literally rising in time with its power, you realise that this is a loyal friend to Caesar who can more than match the rebels.

This is a varied but very strong cast with even bit part players like Ishia Bennison and Bitch Boxer Charlotte Josephine making the most of their cameos.

Miss Lloyd takes some liberties with the script, the plotting and the updating but somehow she gets the balance to perfection in an evening that may offend some but will surely be loved by many more.

It is saying something but, whether seen in the light of the efforts of Sam Mendes and Michael Grandage or as part of a vibrant London autumn, Josie Rourke's first year at the Donmar is proving to be really special. Long may it continue.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher