Three's Company Blog

A tale of two Ceasars

Tonight, I’m off to see the all-female Julius Ceasar at the Donmar Warehouse. It’s great that there’s a major mainstream venue drawing attention to the ideas and issues surrounding all-female Shakespeare, and the production looks to be a corker. I’m dead excited! But one thing’s niggling me, and I wanted to note this thought before actually seeing the show.

In preparation for yesterday’s opening night, they’ve stepped up the press in the last fortnight or so, and they’ve revealed the show is set in a women’s prison – that the inmates put on the production.

Now, maybe this is picky, but it seems to me… isn’t that a bit of a cop-out?

Harriet Walter rehearsing for Brutus in Julius Ceaser. Copyright Someone Else.

Harriet Walter rehearsing for Brutus in Julius Ceaser. © someone else.

The production has been repeatedly described as all-female, and they’ve talked at length about redressing the imbalance caused by companies like Propellor. With that in mind, wouldn’t it be braver – and more interesting – to do a production where the cast are just female, without explaining it away?

Well, obviously I’m biased, because that’s what we do with Smooth Faced Gentlemen. But surely, this is cowering away from actually casting across gender? Doesn’t that change it from “a play about power and betrayal performed by women” to “a play about some people who are doing a play in a place where everyone is a woman”?

It may not be a bad thing. For sure, they’re still increasing the roles available for women in theatre. And I reckon it will create that same magical effect – the suprise of forgetting the actors aren’t the gender they’re playing. But it roots that experience in a fictional world.

I felt similar about the RSC’s amazing “all-black” production of the same play earlier this year, set in a war-torn sub-Saharan country. To be fair, I don’t know if that was actually marketed as “all-black”, whether the director (the consistently-brilliant Greg Doran*) ever described it that way, or if that phrase came from the hype around the show. I’m not underestimating the importance of the first RSC show performed exclusively by black actors. The setting worked miracously, and again it’s broadening opportunities and diversifying our stages – which was reflected in the audience. But artistically, it wasn’t a production of Julius Ceasar where they’d chosen to use only black actors; it was a production they’d chosen to set somewhere that necessitated black actors. That’s surely different?

The RSC's Julius Ceasar at the Noel Coward Theatre. Copyright - probably the RSC.

The RSC’s Julius Ceasar at the Noel Coward Theatre. Copyright – probably the RSC.

Despite being important and newsworthy, neither the Donmar nor the RSC productions this year required their actors to play across race or gender. Ray Fearon and Patterson Joseph** were playing black counterparts of the characters; Harriet Walter and Cush Jumbo will play women who are putting on a play.

What I’m looking for is the wonder of seeing someone play across these barriers. How quickly you forget. An actor is an actor, regardless of race or gender, and a good one can channel a character that has little or nothing in common with them. Somehow, seeing that before your eyes, it tells you something about gender or race or us as people.

Perhaps what I’m describing is too much to ask for an audience to accept. But we handle all-male productions just fine without an excuse – why do we need one for all-female, or all-black, or all-amputees, or any other arbitrary shared feature of the actors that doesn’t reflect the attributes of the characters they’re portraying?

Maybe I’m getting too caught up in my own tastes. What do you think? Would an all-female, all-black, or all-whatever re-imagining of a show be distracting, if it isn’t explained? Are we just messing with the playwrights intentions for the sake of political correctness? Or is my quibble irrelevant and academic? Would love to hear what anyone else thinks. Email me on, comment on our facebook wall, tweet @smoothfacedgent, or best still, add a comment below.

*Soon to take over as the new Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company , which is amazing! Not that I have anything against the last guy, he’s got some great things planned this year.

**Incidentally, pretty much the reason I went in to profession theatre – his Othello, with Andy Serkis as Iago at the Royal Exchange was the most inspiring play I’d ever seen***. Also, click his name there to see a clip of him playing Brutus, from the awesome British Museum exhibition Staging The World. If I can find the whole video I’ll post it, it was excellent.

***Crap that’s a whole decade ago. I feel old.

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