‘Great Performances’ offers an all-female ‘Julius Caesar’
As many times as “Julius Caesar” has been staged, it’s never been done quite the way “Great Performances” is presenting it.
Shakespeare’s classic gets an all-female cast and a very sparse set in the version by London’s Donmar Warehouse that airs Friday, March 29, on PBS (check local listings). Directed by Phyllida Lloyd (“Mamma Mia!”) and airing in conjunction with Women’s History Month, the production relocates the play to a women’s prison where the characters are inmates and guards.
The story basics remain familiar, though, as Brutus (played by “Mary Stuart” Tony Award nominee Dame Harriet Walter) grapples with whether to betray Caesar (Jackie Clunes) in the most pronounced way. Jade Anouka also is prominent as Mark Antony.
“I’d been in so many Shakespeare productions where the small-part players were kind of disgruntled because they’re kind of boring, those parts,” Walter says. “But if you’ve got women being allowed to do this stuff that they never get their hands on, the atmosphere was exciting all the time. It sounds like a bit idealistic, but it was true that everyone felt so grateful to be involved and to be allowed to do this stuff, it was like a great novelty.”
With her Royal Shakespeare Company background, Walter is keenly aware of potential differences in recording a play for later television presentation. “It’s very difficult for actors,” she reasons, “because their duty is to act to the people who have paid the money and are sitting there. We’ve got to give them what they’ve paid for. But at the same time, it can look very exaggerated on screen when you have close-ups.
“This way, I liked it, because you never lost the audience,” adds Walter. “You can see it’s a theatrical performance because you always see the audience, so that wasn’t a problem. And we had to act with big energy, because that’s what the play demands. I wasn’t going to kind of downplay it. You do adjust, but I didn’t play for the cameras. I played for the audience in the room, and luckily, it wasn’t too big a conflict.”