Phyllida Lloyd Transfers her All-female Julius Caesar to the Screen

When it was first staged in 2012, Phyllida Lloyd’s prison-set Julius Caesar was called “gimmicky, humourless and slow” by the Telegraph and “witty, liberating and inventive” by the Guardian. Joined by Henry IV in 2014 and The Tempest in 2016, the once-controversial trilogy has become a byword for stripped back, all-female Shakespeare - and it’s about to be enjoyed by a much wider audience thanks to filmed versions of the 2016 re-staging. Broadway Baby’s James T. Harding met director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia, The Iron Lady)after the premiere screening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival to talk about the impetus behind Julius Caesar and the process of transferring it to the screen.

It's a woman's chance to speak these male roles, a woman's chance to voice concepts of tyranny, freedom and justice.

The prison framing device shared by all three plays began life as a feminist project to correct the lack of diverse women’s roles in theatre. It was an ‘intellectual aesthetic thing. I thought it would help the audience believe the androgyny of the women, that they were obsessed by freedom and justice, that they were full of superstition - as prisoners often are.’ But then the company took the plays into HM Prison Holloway to see what real prisoners would make of them and found that they were ‘very suitable. That's an understatement.’

‘They recognised Caesar the bully, the person who is charismatic, full of humour, who everyone gravitates towards, who maybe runs a wing in the prison, who ultimately some people would want to kill. He's quite a familiar character in prison.’

As Lloyd continued to work with prisoners and Clean Break Theatre, ‘the aesthetic choice faded away into a social mission. We became obsessed by prison reform and women in prison. Everyone onstage has a prison character, and many of those are based on real people.’ Over the five years of the production, ‘It became a social and political mission as much as it was an artistic and aesthetic one.’

The production constantly reminds the audience that it is set in a prison, although in fact it was filmed in a specially constructed tent at Kings Cross. ‘This was born of our experience in prison where everything is impermanent. People are being removed from your workshop - suddenly yanked out to go to another court hearing or to be moved to another prison.’ Even the spaces given to workshops was subject to change, sometimes in the middle of a session.

When the guards come to shut down the performance, Harriet Walter (Brutus) cries ‘You can’t stop it now. You know we’ve only got one chance.’ Lloyd comments, ‘That underpins the entire theme. They are all performing, as if for their lives, as if they will never be heard again. It's a woman's chance to speak these male roles, a woman's chance to voice concepts of tyranny, freedom and justice. And a prisoner's chance to be heard outside of this immolated, tomb-like place they feel they're in.’ That the women can only be heard with the capricious blessing of the regime makes their opportunity all the more precious.

Though a more general version was used for the film, Walter’s lines at the end of the play are usually improvised based on current events. ‘The night Trump was elected we had four hundred school children in the audience,’ recalls Lloyd. ‘Harriet turned to them and said, "Christ, the world is going to hell. There are tyrants everywhere. We can't do anything. You've got to do something." And these kids just stood up and began cheering.’

A moment, of course, which can only happen in live theatre. But in film, you have the ability to edit. ‘Oddly, for me, the edit period of a film is a lot more like theatre’ rehearsals. Although the actors’ performances are fixed, ‘they appear to be alive. You can be editing for weeks and suddenly you go, "Gosh, you know, Jackie's performance has really come up today." But how can that be?

‘It's to do with the shifting of elements - suddenly an actor's performance can come into focus.’

The filmed version of Julius Caesar was recorded with multiple cameras over two nights, with additional footage shot without the audience present. ‘In the Brutus/Cassius scenes, you're looking at the characters on different evenings. It's a kind of hybrid of live and set-up.’

‘I have a very strong ambivalence about theatre on screen. I hate this term “capture”. The problem is the camera is never where you want it to be in a live performance - the audience are’ in the way. ‘Our advantage was that we're in the round, so the camera could be where you wanted it to be: on the actor's eye line, which is very unusual for theatre on screen.’

The live audience presented other opportunities for the film too. ‘You probably felt, even if you didn't think it, that every time Caesar came on stage you could see the audience - until the point in the Senate when the lights came right up and suddenly you've got four hundred unpaid extras sitting there as parliament. That sense of the audience was useful to the filmmaking, in a way that they often aren't at all useful in putting a play out on screen.’

Julius Caesar will be playing at cinemas around the UK from Wednesday 12th July, 2017. Find a screening near you here:

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