Thursday, 6 December 2012

Charles Spencer's review of Julius Caesar at the Donmar

Engaging with reviews is always dangerous for an actor, but I never suspected to be so affected by one of a production I have no involvement in.  Charles Spencer’s verdict on Julius Caesar  at the Donmar Warehouse didn’t just make me angry, it actually shocked me in both its tone and content, for its misogyny and contempt toward a production which dared to stage a all-female Shakespeare production.

The review (available here) repeatedly demonstrates Spencer’s  scepticism about the value of such a production, and in the second paragraph he laments the absence of a direct gender-reversal with a distant lack of “men in drag”.  Instead, the production is summed up as “a feminist closed shop [in which] chaps aren’t allowed”.

He goes on to take issue with the framing-device employed by Phyllida Lloyd, who has tried to “make sense of an all-female Julius Caesar” (because the idea of an all-female Shakespeare production must be extensively justified to him in a way that all-male productions such as those at the Globe and Propeller aren’t) by setting it in a women’s prison.  Spencer’s ‘avant-garde’ alarm is already flashing furiously as he laments how Lloyd, previously responsible for the “uncomplicated pleasure” of Mamma Mia! should deign to revision Shakespeare’s play in an exclusively female context, “hell-bent on making the audience suffer for their art”.

Already we can see how Spencer is struggling to separate reviewing this production with the outcry for more roles for women - his opening line notes how “actresses have complained their aren’t nearly enough decent parts [for them]”.  But acknowledgement of one of the the factors as to why this Julius Casear  may have been produced turns to unadorned disdain as he goes on.  By quoting Samuel Johnson’s joke on female preeching and letting it sit in the middle of his review unadorned, Spencer implicitly dismisses the piece as feminist bandwagon jumping - an opinion he finally delivers in full by attacking the show’s “crass, attention seeking staging”.  There are times when “you genuinely forget their gender and simply admire their acting” - indeed he can’t fault either of the leads - but despite this, it’s obviously proving too big a leap for him to assimilate entirely.

Now there are two separate issues here.  Charles Spencer not liking the concept which Lloyd has applied to the play is one of them, and I have absolutely no issue with him criticising that.  But rather than analyze why  Lloyd has placed “one of Shakespeare’s most masculine plays” in such a context, the concept (a group of female prisoners choosing to stage Caeser for themselves) is dismissed as a model (that women should just be given more classical parts, regardless).  He fails to engage in the show on any level other than as a polemic.

The contrast to how he has approached recent all-male Shakespeare productions couldn’t be more different.  Whereas the justification for the Globe Theatre’s ‘original practices‘ productions are in actuality tenuous (no child actors playing the women here), the fact it is all-male acting company is never drawn attention to.    Similarly with Propellor Theatre’s all-male productions, which seem to be assessed purely on artistic merit as well as offering the chance for Spencer to enjoy those “burly blokes who bring poignancy as well as humour to their roles” whose absence in Julius Casear he obviously laments.

I haven’t seen the Donmar production yet, and am in no place to judge how effective Lloyd’s take is.  But I strongly believe in the company’s right to do it, and for an all-female Shakespeare to be judged on its own merits rather than any perceived agenda.  Funnily enough, I’m asking for some equality in perspective - and as a professional theatre critic, Charles Spencer should be ashamed for not being able to offer that.