As a row of women, led by prison guards, are marched onto a sparse and industrial set, the Julius Caesar that audiences are familiar with is revived and remodelled in Phyllida Lloyd’s adaptation of the Shakespeare classic, in this first instalment of the Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy.

The cast, exclusively female, and for some, their first experience of performing Shakespeare, not only bring a different voice to a stereotypically male dominated production, but at the same time provide a platform for voices of those who may feel excluded from mainstream society and culture.

Led by theatre veteran Harriet Walter, Donmar’s Julius Caesar pushes Shakespeare into new territory, bringing it bang up-to-date with current issues relating to gender, the prison system, fear and diversity. The audience on screen: set in the round, and filmed over two nights, allows for seamless camera placement. Part prison, part Rome: It smashes the fourth wall and becomes a play within a play. The set design and props are minimalistic and the sound is implemented by the actors themselves, using drums, guitars, their voices and bodies to create a sense of chaos and apprehension throughout.

Following the assassination of Julius Caesar, played by Jackie Clune, the civil war between Brutus (Harriet Walter) and Cassius (Martina Laird) and their foe Mark Anthony (Jade Anouka), comes to a head with a fierce drum solo as their men are slaughtered, before both Brutus and Cassius fall upon their own swords. However, it is not without its comic relief, Sheila Atim who brings her perfectly timed wit to the character of Lucius provides a welcome dose of laughter.

Julius CaesarWalter brings an eagerness to her portrayal of Brutus, an underlying urgency for change and the fear of things being left unfinished. A feeling that runs parallel with the fundamental issues the company wanted to highlight. Martina Laird’s, Cassius is a pleasure to watch, her guilt, her strength and her loyalty is palpable and extremely well executed.

Julius Caesar has most recently gained newsworthy status as Public Theatre’s: Shakespeare in the Park production hit the stage in May, with Caesar’s apparent likeness to a certain President causing protests and threats. Whether this is the case or not, it goes to show how powerful Shakespeare can still be if made relatable. Donmar’s production highlights this superbly; portraying a political leader overreaching and extending his powers beyond his remit and showing the consequences of inflammatory rhetoric on a society fed by fear. Scenes of mob violence, CCTV and go-pro footage pepper the stage which further reinforces the production’s relevance.   

Lloyd and the team at Donmar have injected a breath of fresh air into what can seem otherwise, especially to a younger audience, disengaging and often irrelevant to the current climate. This cinematic venture beautifully weaves together the best of the screen and the stage. Close-ups and reverse shots bring the cinema audience into to the action, an element which is often lost in theatre-to-screen productions.

Working in collaboration with actors, female ex-offenders and members of the Clean Break Theatre Company has resulted in a diverse band of actors and crew who have created a poignant and relevant production, driven by outstanding performances and with it, a powerful mission to make the theatre a home for everybody.