The Winslow Boy @ Roundabout American Airlines (through December 1, 2013)
Julius Caesar @ St. Ann’s Warehouse (through November 9, 2013 )

Revivals can dull the senses or send chills up your spine. Certainly the source material will establish a trajectory for each of these responses. The response alchemy will further depend upon the skills of the production team, the performers on stage, and not least the sensibilities of the audience members in the seats for any performance. It has been my pleasure in the past few days to experience two deftly handled revivals of widely (and wildly) different source material handled with sensitivity and energy and grace and grandeur and emotions that play just beneath the surface or are exploded on the stage — or perhaps in the seat front of you, as was my pleasure watching the death of Julius Caesar. But I get ahead of myself. Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Accents and costumes and surprises and calls to invite you to attend the text in two splendid productions currently running on New York stages

Julius Caesar: Beware.

Frances Barber (as Caesar) in center amidst seat of Caesar-masked comrades, Carrie Rocks as Soothsayer peddling in foreground. (Image via Donmar original production.)
Frances Barber as Caesar in center amidst sea of Caesar-masked comrades, Carrie Rock as Soothsayer peddling in foreground. (Image via Donmar original production.)

Donmar Warehouse staged this all female production of Julius Caesar earlier this calendar year. That London home base (once a warehouse where performances are given primarily in three-sided almost arena stagings) has been approximated at the current temporary quarters of St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. Warehouse to warehouse, country to country, this spare industrial space provides a powerful context for the effective conceit of Julius Caesar in a women’s prison.

I am on the cusp of (or living just the other side of) the cultural phenomenon that is the Netflix television series Orange is the New Black, based on a 2010 memoir by Piper Kerman about her time at a Danbury Connecticut federal woman’s prison. This evening I happen to be reading the novel on my Kindle in the next door coffee shop where theatre patrons are herded prior to entering the loading dock of St. Ann’s next door. Actors dressed as prison guards herd us, with little instruction, into the bull pen of the loading dock and the garage door drops down at one point, effectively splitting the audience into two shifts. There is wandering, silence, musing about the next step, guards milling about, spaces in the seats and people wondering: is this all there is to this audience, or, can I shift my seat? Then amidst cacophonous doors raising and bright lights and a new set of guards, the slightly blinking and confused balance of our audience enters. I’ve studied correctional facilities and visited them in real life as well as Kerman’s memoir on the page and on the television screen. I know intellectually that what this set up has done is, without overt force, placed the audience in the position of powerless receivers of the adventures to come. Part of me wonders what would have happened to any audience miscreants whose cell phone might have gone off during the performance (none thankfully did during my two hour intermission-less experience with the Bard this night). What a set up!

And the performances meet and exceed my expectations for this familiar story of power and loyalty and allegiance and revenge involving Julius Caesar, his loyal Mark Anthony, others who have their own ambitions, and some of the best remembered speeches in all Shakespeare (I could hear murmurs or recognition scattered throughout my performance). In this Donmar production women speak all the roles, whether written as men or written as women. There is a heterosexual rather than a lesbian feel to this production’s intentionality — we don’t seem to be expected to see this as a Sapphic transmutation of the communities and relationships but a world (in a flip of all male performers in Shakespeare’s time) in which male and female roles are all played by women. Or so this productions played to me. Caesar (Frances Barber) is not a butch female but male, as are his most loyal colleague Mark Anthony (Cush Jumbo) and the mass of soldiers including Brutus (Harriet Walter) and his mates. Roles that are given female fillips, females as females, include Portia (Clare Dunne, who also takes on Octavius Caesar), Calpurnia (Jade Anouka, who also takes on several male roles), and the Soothsayer (Carrie Rock) played as a tricycle riding, stuffed toy toting child.

Petrov (Fred Astaire) with dancing girls masked as Linda Keene (Ginger Rogers) in Shall We Dance? (1937).

Shakespeare’s text, deftly edited by director Phyllida Lloyd, plays out accompanied by a rock and rap-ish score performed by Irene Ketikidi on guitar and Helen Cripps on drums, and occasionally the entire ensemble thumping or drumming on anything at hand, bringing to mind James Cagney prison movies of chow time plate smashing inmates. Other moments awe with precise, arresting arresting visuals. Caesar brought into the Senate on the shoulders of his comrades in Caesar-masks in dim light, pictured above, brings to mind another cinematic reference — Fred Astaire as dancing in a psychotic, dreaming dance sequence with a bevy of beauties holding up masks of Ginger Rogers in the 1937 film Shall We Dance?.The murder itself (enacted a seat away from me, with one performer actually climbing over me to reach her mark). And the thrumming drumbeat of metal implements on bars, trays on the ground, sticks on a drum set.

Barber’s hysterical laugh as Caesar that morphs into a sobbing “Et tu, Brute?” and Harriet Walter’s Brutus in tears leaving the playing may stay with me for a long long while. Some questions may arise for the viewer concerning moments of the dramatic conceit (prisoners and players and layers of meaning) and yet these are performances that will stay with me always, illuminating the text and leading us on an emotional journey in a play that rarely achieves that goal.

The Winslow Boy: Pause and Reflect.

(L-R) Henny Russell, Roger Rees, Michael Crumpsty, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Charlotte Parry. Image by Joan Marcus.
(L-R) Henny Russell, Roger Rees, Michael Crumpsty, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Charlotte Parry. Image by Joan Marcus.

On a sunny October Saturday I joined hordes of Roundabout Theatre patrons to attend another imported British production. With the sparest of sets by Peter McKintosh (reported to have been erected “out of the box” from the preceding Old Vic appearance of this production), the lovely costumes by the same designer give the production shape and movement, and an ensemble of performances guided by director Lindsay Posner provide the ever-present subtlety and selectively inserted bombast to tell this Terence Rattigan tale exquisitely.

Adolescent Ronnie Winslow (Spencer Davis Milford) has returned unexpectedly from military school to his London family home, accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order. He was found guilty of this action after an internal school inquiry and forced to withdraw. The kicker is that he had no chance to defend himself, he maintains his innocence — his youth and the system itself mandate that his harm must be taken up by his family, the adults, to be addressed. Ronnie’s parents, the tenacious Arthur (Roger Rees) and quiet, calm, loyal mother Grace (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) try to understand, and see that a systemic injustice has been done that requires testing legal assumptions and precedents (a more refined version of “whatever the Admiralty says goes” needed to be tweaked, they agree). The parents debate strategies for getting on with their lives for three acts with suffragette daughter Catherine (the riveting Charlotte Parry), lackadaisical Oxford student son Dickie (Zachary Booth), family lawyer Desmond Curry (Michael Crumpsty), a servant or two, and the nationally famous, political ambitious barrister Robert Morton (Alessandro Nivola) who challenges the rule and fights for the right to sue the government over this wrongful expulsion as the major intellectual action of the play.

Family stresses are raised, or exacerbated, by the young Ronnie’s plight and the family fight to save his and their reputation. Catherine is a suffragette during the years immediately preceding the first World War with ultimately three romantic interests — a fiance John Watherstone (Chandler Wiliams) who breaks off the engagement when the court case gets heated, the loyal family lawyer Curry who learns she does not love him romantically, and the fierce legal combatant Robert Morton, who we ultimately believe she just might one day love as an equal. Desultory Oxford student brother Dickie has his own expulsion via his father who has an eye toward the family finances and after asking Dickie his own sense of his odds of completing his degree (less the 50-50) informs him that this term at Oxford will be his last. Rattigan’s choice to have household members report the action of the court case to one another after attending the proceedings rather than taking the action of the play into a courtroom and forsaking the family dynamics works marvelously well in this carefully paced story of class and politics and family loyalty and requited and unrequited love.

© Martha Wade Steketee (October 27, 2013)

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