A few weeks ago, I took in a bit of Shakespeare near the Brooklyn waterfront, screwing my bladder to the sticking place along the way. My review of the Donmar Warehouse's production of Julius Caesar is up today at Howlround, and you can read it if you like.
In the teeming yard of an English prison, a convict named Brutus tries to get the attention of a gang of joggers. He speaks of love and honor and fairness, finally winning their approval with a simple question: "Had you rather Caesar were living and die all slaves," he asks them, "than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men?" From the vantage of the prison yard, a single death is a small price for freedom. But as Brutus and his throng soon learn, the transaction is not so simple.
The Donmar Warehouse's Julius Caesar premiered in London last December, and has been imported to Brooklyn to play in a warehouse of our own: St. Ann's, a half a block from the East River in Dumbo. This all female production, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, is set in a women's prison, and uses that harsh setting to remake itself into a meditation on the nature of freedom. Compelling but flawed, it is a fine example of the benefits and drawbacks that come with using Shakespeare to make a point about something larger than the play itself.
I walked away from that production feeling very good about it, and wrote the review in that mood. But this was not a love that lasted. The more I thought about the production's noisy tricks, the less I was impressed. Most of the acting was superb, and the first half of the play—when the production's premise was still unclear—was discomfiting in an interesting way. But what's stuck with me over the last couple of weeks is the noisiness of the production, and the shallow flashiness that seemed design to deafen the audience and drown out the text.
I had complex feelings about this production, and wanted that to come through in the review, but reading over my words, I worry that they sound a little too sunny. There are very good things in this Julius Caesar, but they come in spite of the production itself. Even so, I'm glad I saw it, and I'm glad I spent the last two weeks wrestling with the way I felt about it. A perfect production (if there were such a thing) could never make you think the way an ambitious, badly flawed one can.