The central point in Lloyd's production is that it's set in a women's prison, a setting that allows the themes of power and its abuse and shifting loyalties to be explored.
One thing that Lloyd does bring out well is the relationship between the conspirators themselves and the conspirators and Caesar - there's much talk of love in the play but it's not something brought to the fore much by male actors. There’s also the malign side of this and Lloyd captures well; the petty jealousies that will exist within a closed environment.
Frances Barber's Caesar dominates the action - even after her death, Caesar’s ghost is a constant observer. There's often a moral ambiguity about the portrayal of Caesar and whether he is the tyrant depicted by Cassius and Brutus but, as in the recent RSC production, there's little ambiguity here: Barber portrays Caesar as a strutting bully, someone clearly used to getting her own way, and with a casual acceptance of violence - even using a doughnut as a weapon. It's a strong performance but lacking in subtlety - why do so many people profess their love for a near-psychopath?
The standout is Harriet Walter's Brutus. She captures all of the contrasting elements of the character, especially his/her inherent nobility. She speaks the verse beautifully too, making this a Brutus we can empathise with.
She's well complemented by Jenny Jules' passionate Cassius: fire to Brutus' calm reason. The disappointment is Cush Jumbo's Antony which doesn't really encapsulate the character's slippery nature and grasp of political expediency.
One element that's missing is the power of the mob - the first scene is excised completely and we don't really get the sense of a crowd out of control. The shifting moods after the marketplace speeches are well done, but having Antony lead the mob attacking Cinna the poet rather loses Shakespeare's vision of him as a master manipulator.
The play runs without an interval: a good decision as it means the production doesn't fall flat after the climax of the assassination and its immediate aftermath. While it's not perfect, Lloyd has brought some fresh insights to this endlessly fascinating play - a production that surpasses what could have been gimmicky casting.
- by Maxwell Cooter