Later this month, an all-female version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar opens at London’s Donmar Warehouse, under the direction of the acclaimed Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!, Mary Stuart). Among the stellar cast are Harriet Walter, Cush Jumbo and, in the title role, Frances Barber. Aesthetica’s Grace Henderson caught up with Barber during rehearsals to learn more about the production, which runs until 9 February.
A: You’ve commented elsewhere that, as an all-female company, you’re not approaching Julius Caesar’s male roles from a standpoint of trying to “be men”, or male caricatures; instead focusing on the universality of the play’s themes. That said, is there anything in particular that you do to prepare yourself for portraying one of Shakespeare’s most famous men?
FB: We have all been concentrating on using our centres – our core strength from which the breath is controlled and comes a stronger and more penetrating voice. It’s not necessarily masculine as everyone speaking Shakespeare should do this, but it is even more imperative playing a charismatic leader who is as powerful as Caesar.
A: Phyllida Lloyd is directing, which must have been one of many elements that drew you to the project; can you talk us through her vision for the production as you understand it?
FB: Phyllida wanted to redress the balance of so many male productions being lauded of late by having an all female cast. Then she chose the play. Julius Caesar is a comment on what happens when a despot is deposed and how anarchy can result. Our production is set in a women’s prison in which there is a power structure, subterfuge, treachery and danger – all of which are in the play.
A: One of the special things about this production seems to be the opportunity it affords for such a strong group of women to join together and take on roles they may not normally have had access to. Can you talk about your experience of working with the rest of the cast and the atmosphere in the rehearsal process?
FB: It’s a very mixed multiracial cast of all ages and experience. I find this particularly thrilling as it’s an opportunity to work with a fantastically talented group of women who are all encouraged to contribute on every level in the rehearsal process. We feel safe and protected enough to experiment without fear of failure as this is, after all, an experiment for us all. A female Julius Caesar set in a prison…quite a challenge.
A: In your opinion, how does the Donmar lend itself to staging a production of this nature?
FB: I love the Donmar and am delighted to be working there again. It’s a wonderful, intimate space with great character and the potential to be transformed into whatever environment any given play demands.
A: Can you tell us a little more about the new Barclays Front Row ticket scheme that’s rolling out from Julius Caesar onwards at the Donmar?
FB: It’s a subsidised ticket scheme through which audiences can get some of the very best seats in the Donmar for just £10. Under the scheme, 40 of the £10 seats will be released every Monday for performances two weeks later. These can be booked over the phone or online, so it’s not necessarily a case of having to join an endless queue at the last minute! It’s part of a drive to make this kind of theatre more accessible to a wider audience, which is obviously something I support completely, and it’s wonderful that it’s starting with this production.
A: In a celebrated stage career, you’ve portrayed most of Shakespeare’s key protagonists, from Ophelia to Lady Macbeth to Cleopatra. Are there any you’ve not yet played that you’d like to, or, if not Shakespearean roles, any theatre roles more generally?
FB: Having now had a taste of a male Shakespeare character I’d quite like to have a go at Macbeth as I love the poetry so much.
A: You’re always so busy with a variety of theatre, film and television projects. Following this run, what’s up next for you?
FB: I have a film coming out in January – a black comedy thriller called May I Kill You? in which I appear alongside a great cast including Kevin Bishop and Rosemary Leach. Before that I am filming Psychobitches in which I’m playing, amongst others, Bette Davis, and then hopefully another series of the BBC legal drama Silk, opposite Maxine Peake, Rupert Penry-Jones and Neil Stuke, to be aired in spring.
Julius Caesar, 29 November until 9 February, Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, London, WC2H 9LX. www.donmarwarehouse.com/
For more about the Barclays Front Row scheme, visit www.donmarwarehouse.com/barclays-front-row.
1. Julius Caesar.
2. Harriet Walter and Frances Barber in rehearsals for Julius Caesar at Donmar Warehouse Photo Helen Maybanks.