Friends keep telling me to see Donmar Warehouse’s all-female production of Julius Caesar set in a women’s prison. It’s a lovely recommendation, and a funny one, since I actually saw it just a day or two after it opened. That I haven’t, until tonight, found my way to writing about it speaks perhaps to its impact on me as as much as to my schedule.
Although it felt muddled at times in terms of devices — Was this Julius Caesar set in or performed in a women’s prison? Was the rupturing of the forth wall about placing us in the prison or having prison escape its bounds? — the heightened reality and evocation of war through petty politics and electric guitars evoked more Oz than Orange is the New Black, and the acting was uniformly stellar.
But nothing mattered so much as the performance of one of Mark Antony’s critical speeches, which continues to haunt me some four weeks later. The role is performed by Cush Jumbo (my Whovian readers may remember her as Lois Habiba in Torchwood: Children of Earth). In it, he (the production does not change pronouns for these women) attempts to make sense of why Julius Cesar has had to die, while also grieving his friend.
But Brutus says he was ambitious is repeated throughout the speech with increasing bewilderment, contempt, and even bitter acceptance by Mark Antony. It’s always been a powerful moment, but in this production, it carried even more force — justifying both the all-female cast and dwarfing the other elements of the production both stylistic and narrative.
Nothing in the play felt like it mattered more than that speech as I watched it, and four weeks later, I remain in the same place — clutching at the indictment of Antony’s words, at a woman pronouncing ambition (and gossip) the reason for the death of another woman. A group of women decided Caesar was ambitious and whispered about it, curse and sentence.
The nature of the ambition, the form of its execution, was ultimately rendered irrelevant, because of how the moment forced the audience to confront its own beliefs not just about ambition in general, but about competition and ambition amongst women. It is not comfortable and requires an eye towards misogyny both internalized and external.
Since seeing the production, but Brutus says he was ambitious has become something of an internal catch phrase for me, a reminder of the spaces between ambition as generalized virtue, gendered sin, and useful tool for specific achievement amid the also often gendered consequences of desire.
Having been reminded of these spaces, however, I am left with no answer, not for Caesar, not for the Donmar’s production which reaches far and stumbles often (mostly around the characters that were also female in the original text), and not for myself. But I do keep wondering if there was some way Caesar could have wanted the world — a world, any world, no matter how small — politely, and if that would have made any difference.
Julius Caesar runs through November 9 at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, NY. Catch it if you can.