Have I ever seen a Julius Caesar that I entirely liked? I’m not sure. I’ve seen it done in its “proper” setting, in Ancient Rome, as well as in a kind of Star-Trekkian abstraction thereof; in Obama-era America; in post-colonial Africa - but I’m not sure the play has ever entirely worked for me as a play, however well the individual set pieces are staged.

So the first credit I can give to the Donmar Warehouse production currently being performed at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn is that it is all of a piece. It does not flag or falter; what works, works all the way through.

The conceit of the production (directed by Phyllida Lloyd) is that the play is being staged in a women’s prison, by the inmates. The audience enters through a loading area under harsh fluorescent lights attended by uniformed guards, under whose watchful gaze we file into the theater proper, a bare cinder block recreation area fronted by steel bleachers. When it’s time for the play to begin, the actors march in wearing gray sweats and hoodies, and break immediately into a frenzied dance with dialogue loosely related to the opening scene of the play. They are the inmates of this prison; Caesar (Frances Barber) is some kind of head inmate, leader of the girl gang, but with none of the maternal qualities of a character like Red from “Orange Is the New Black.” She mocks the horoscope shown her by the soothsayer (Carrie Rock, playing her as a child-woman, complete with tricycle and teddy bear), warning her about the ides of March, and mashes face with a curvy and phony-tough Antony (Cush Jumbo). And then the noisy crowd disperses, and we are left with the quietly noble Brutus (Harriet Walter) and an itchy, seething Cassius (Jenny Jules) – and a return to Shakespeare’s proper dialogue.

The opening was certainly energetic, but left me more puzzled than moved. The frame, that we were in a prison, was established – but I was not clear on what the status of this production was within that frame. Was this an authorized prison activity? Who were we – were we there, known to the inmates? Were the inmates trying to communicate with us through this play? Or were they staging it for their own purposes, for themselves?

For a while I forgot these meta-theatrical questions, as I let myself relax into the performances. Barber’s Caesar is a shallow character forcefully realized, while Walter’s Brutus is about as noble as I’ve ever seen him – and considerably more emotional, not only in his relationship with Cassius (which works wonderfully all through the play), but even in his feelings for Caesar, whom he plainly loves (though I can’t think why). The play, in other words, is entirely on Brutus’s side, but that, at least, makes sense for the setting; if you set Julius Caesar in a prison, you should expect the production to take the side of the one who fells the tyrant.

But the questions came back with greater urgency as, over the course of the play, the production engaged in more and more meta-theatrical gestures. Some examples:

  • When Caesar is executed, Barber engages in some deliberately over-the-top bad acting of the death – reminding us that this is just a play.
  • When Antony is giving his funeral oration, he literally conducts his audience’s emotional reactions, raising and lowering their voices by raising and lowering his hands – reminding us that he is manipulating them, and preventing us from being manipulated similarly.
  • The “Cinna the Poet” scene is interrupted twice, first by the actress playing Cinna (I think it was Carrie Rock again) being sent by the guards for her meds, then when her replacement (Helen Cripps) has her nose smashed into a pole by another inmate, and breaks character to call for help from the guards (who, surprisingly, do not stop the play).
  • When Brutus and Cassius are arguing in their tent, Brutus hears the other actors chattering behind a curtain, and breaks character to curse them out, then has to walk about a bit muttering before she can get back into character.
  • When Brutus is found dead, Antony speaks his eulogy about his being the “noblest Roman of them all” and the only one who acted from patriotic motives rather than envy to a camera, clearly turning it into a political speech condemning the other conspirators; this device is repeated again by a winking and sneering Octavius (a visibly pregnant Clare Dunne, who also plays a very moving Portia) at the close of the play.

These are all Brechtian distancing devices, designed to remind us that we are watching a play, keeping us from being moved by what we see and reminding us to look for the structures of authority that shape the actions of the drama. I’m always a bit ambivalent about these, because I want to be moved – but more to the point, they made it all the more urgent for me to understand what those structures were – who, in fact, is staging this play, and for whom.

At the very, very end of the play, we find out. A buzzer sounds, and Caesar – who never left the stage; he just hung around, sometimes leaning against a wall, observing, sometimes playing the drums, haunting not only Brutus but the entire production – comes forward, removes his costume – and is revealed to be another member of the prison staff, a senior guard or possibly even a warden. It’s five minutes to lock down, and the prisoners abruptly file out to go to their cells, Brutus only lingering behind, still overcome by the experience of the play.

So the play was, apparently, authorized, at least by the authority nearest to hand. And this, in retrospect, shapes everything we’ve seen. The fact that Caesar obviously has a sexual relationship with Antony implies a similar relationship between guard and inmate – which, in turn, tells us something about how this prison is run. Brutus’s melancholy, and his genuine affection for Caesar, says something about that inmate’s one-time position vis-a-vis that authority. And out position as invited audience is highly ambiguous – it says one thing if the authorities are willing to let the inmates act out their fantasies of rebellion and their tragic recognition that they must make their peace with authority, even to the point of sexual submission. But it says something quite different if the wardens are willing to let the outside world come in and watch.

It’s a chilling ending, but I wonder if it didn’t come too late for me – if the production didn’t partly lose me a bit earlier on because I was worrying over these questions without grasping the thread of the answer. Brecht, I think, would not have saved that kind of revelation for the end, as a “twist” to surprise the audience. He would have wanted us to know up front, because he would have wanted us to understand the structure of authority. Ditto for Peter Weiss, whose play, Marat/Sade, clearly lurks in the background, along with the work of Genet.

Or perhaps I’m just not very clever, and it was clear to everyone else from the beginning.

Or, perhaps, my difficulty lay elsewhere, in a sexual suspicion of the whole women-in-prison genre. But – in this case if not in the case of the Netflix series – that’s probably my own hangup. The sexuality on display here is not aimed to titillate.

In any event, Julius Caesar is a play that you need to play with if it is going to play for a contemporary audience. And this the women of Donmar Warehouse – and of this unnamed prison – did. More power to them.

Julius Caesar runs at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn through November 9th.