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Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

Phyllida Lloyd and All-Female Shakespeare

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 76

In 2012, the Donmar Warehouse opened an all-female production of Julius Caesar, directed by Tony Award-nominated director Phyllida Lloyd and starring Harriet Walter as Brutus. The production was set in a womens’ prison, and would be the first of a trilogy of all-female productions that The Guardian would call “one of the most important theatrical events of the past 20 years.” Caesar was followed by Henry IV in 2014, and The Tempest in 2016.

Julius Caesar will be screened at select theaters across the UK on July 12. Director Phyllida Lloyd tells us about the productions, from conception to performance. She is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev. 

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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published June 27, 2017 ©Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “We Are Governed With Our Mothers’ Spirits,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. We had help from Chris Charles at the Sound Company in London.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: Mark Antony rises to speak beside Caesar’s dead body.

[CLIP: Julius Caesar]

The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious.
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answered it.

WITMORE: If something about this performance is not what you’re accustomed to…

[CLIP continues]

He was my friend, faithful and just to me,
But Brutus says he was ambitious…

WITMORE: If Mark Antony’s vocal register is higher than what you’re used to hearing…

[CLIP continues]

When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept;
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious,
And Brutus is an honorable man.

WITMORE: Well, there’s a reason. From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. What you just heard was actress Cush Jumbo in an all-female production of Julius Caesar that was first produced by the Donmar Warehouse in London in 2012, part of a trilogy of all-female Shakespeare productions directed by Tony Award-nominated director, Phyllida Lloyd. The other two legs of the trilogy were Henry IV, produced in 2014, and The Tempest, in 2016. The Guardian called the trilogy “one of the most important theatrical events of the past twenty years” because it has enabled the audience to envision alternatives to what’s considered the norm in Shakespeare performance. We invited Ms. Lloyd to come in and talk with us about the production of her trilogy from inception through to production. We call this podcast, “We Are Governed With Our Mothers’ Spirits.”  Phyllida Lloyd is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

BARBARA BOGAEV: Let’s start with the idea of producing all-female Shakespeare. What made you want to do it? 

PHYLLIDA LLOYD: Well, I was trying to trace the origin of this, and I think it goes really back to my very eccentric all girls’ boarding school in the early 1970s. Academic achievement was very thin on the ground but theater was everything. And every Wednesday night, we had to do Shakespeare reading, and my very formidable English mistress, Ms. Dylan West, in orange ankle socks and sandals, with plats wrapped around her ears, would be giving her King Lear while the rest of us played all the smaller roles. We left that school feeling we could be anything, we could be a sea captain or a king, we could be funny, and that all the parts were available to us, and not just on the stage but in the world. So it was a rude awakening to find that wasn’t quite how the world works.

BOGAEV: You know I share that with you. I also went to an all girls’ school, and graduated with that feeling. And, it is a rude shock, and the people in charge of the theaters are mostly men, both in the U.K. and here in America still.

LLOYD: Yes, I think it’s not a kind of conspiracy to keep us in the kitchen or just as the love interest, it’s just that they kind of assume that’s the way the world has worked in terms of the classical theater.

BOGAEV: There’s definitely that, but do you think they’re just not really interested in cross-gender casting, I’m talking to the people in charge, or do you think they think the audience isn’t interested in it? 

LLOYD: I think that everything is changing, not just on the classical stage, but in terms of the questioning of gender and identity, and to what extent we are corralled by society into playing certain roles and behaving in a certain way. So, depending on people’s sensibility, whether they feel it’s an exciting—I’m talking about the men you mentioned, who might be running theaters—they may see it as a very thrilling opportunity to break up received norms, or they may feel it’s incumbent on them just to reflect the make-up of the audience and how the stage is peopled.

BOGAEV: Well, in terms of Shakespeare, I’m thinking of a few things I’ve read that you said, for instance, that you said you conceived this Julius Caesar production as a way to redress the imbalance in Shakespeare, that there’s simply no spiritual, intellectual, or metaphysical equivalent to Lear, the Richards, the Henrys, Othello and Iago.

LLOYD: Well, the reason I put together this all-female production of Julius Caesar, it actually came at a very particular moment. The Olympics were happening in Great Britain in 2012, and there were a number of projects that seemed to be heavily, for me, freighted in favor of men. There was also a report published in London saying that for every job that was going for a woman in the theater, there were two jobs for men, or the balance of employment was two to one. And two girlfriends of mine had just gotten their hands on the keys of a very important London theater, the Donmar. And they asked me to be part of their opening season and said, “What would you do?” So I said, “How about an all-female Shakespeare?” And my friend Harriet Walter, I went to see her, and she had largely run out of road on the classical stage. She was going to be really having to, just, give up on Shakespeare, which was her passion and her great, great skill. So I said to her, “What are you good casting for?” And she said, “Macbeth and Brutus. I’ve got much more in common with Brutus than I ever had with Cleopatra.”

[CLIP: Julius Caesar]

I kiss thy hand, but not in flattery, Caesar,
Desiring thee that Publius Cimber may
Have an immediate freedom of repeal.

What, Brutus?

Pardon, Caesar…

LLOYD: So that’s how that all began, it really began as jobs for the girls, unashamedly. I did not want my niece going to see any more classical plays thinking, “Oh, I’m the one in the corner, sort of mooning over the leading man.”  I wanted to feel that she could to the theater and think, “My god, I could be in charge.” 

BOGAEV: Exactly, you could command the stage.

[CLIP: Julius Caesar]

All this? Ay, more. Fret till your proud heart break.
Go show your slaves how choleric you are
And make your bondmen tremble. Must I budge?
Must I observe you? Must I stand and crouch
Under your testy humor?

BOGAEV: I’m wondering, though, what single-gender casting does for the audience in Shakespeare. What’s the effect of it, and what’s the power of it? 

LLOYD: It’s a distancing effect on one level. I think what’s thrilling about it, whether it’s all men or all women, is that you start seeing the shapes, and I think that’s something that audiences who came to see these productions, some of whom knew the plays backwards like liturgy, would say to us, “Oh my god, you’re literally hearing the same score played on different instruments, we’re literally seeing different shapes, hearing new parts of the text.

[CLIP: The Tempest]

This is a most majestic vision, and
Harmonious charmingly. May I be bold
To think these spirits?

Spirits, which by mine art
I have from their confines called to enact
My present fancies.

Let me live here ever.
So rare a wondered father and a wife
Makes this place paradise.

LLOYD: It’s a disruption, it’s not necessarily the ultimate solution, but it definitely does… A lot of rust and dust comes off the play.

BOGAEV: You did get some blowback from reviewers, as you always get blowback from reviewers, that’s what they’re there for, and I’m thinking of one that I read, here’s a quote: ” Female to male cross-casting remains a comparative rarity. When it does occur, it can trigger audience skepticism and critical discontent.”  And then it went on to compare the praise lavished on Mark Rylance’s Globe shows with some of the reviews greeting your Julius Caesar. What do you think the hang-up is here?  I’m thinking of one of your actors in Julius Caesar, who said that it makes people scared to see girls running around with so much power.

LLOYD: I think it was as much to do with the ferocity of the group. You may know these were set in a women’s prison. I mean, to say they took no prisoners is an understatement. I think there was a feeling when they walked onto the stage, I sometimes felt, particularly if we had a corporate audience, that they felt, “My God, you prisoners and there, we’re here, don’t come any closer to us.”

[CLIP: Julius Caesar]

Briefly, I dwell by the Capitol.

Your name, sir, truly.

Truly, my name is Cinna.

Tear him to pieces! He’s a conspirator.

I am Cinna the poet, I am Cinna the poet!

Tear him for his bad verses!

LLOYD: There was something about the illusion that these women were obsessed with freedom and justice to the point where they were prepared to commit slaughter for it.

BOGAEV: It was that real.

LLOYD: Yes, and of course that’s going to create a little unrest in the spirits of an audience.

[CLIP: Julius Caesar]

Speak, hands, for me!

Sounds of violence as CASCA and the others stab CAESAR

Et tu, Brutè?—Then fall, Caesar.

BOGAEV: Tell us more about why you decided then to set these three plays in prisons? 

LLOYD: I chose Julius Caesar because it was, in a way, one of the most macho plays in which almost all the actresses would be freed from the domestic and the romantic. And then I began to think, “perhaps there’s a way to help the audience and the actors believe the action of a play.”  As I say, that the characters are obsessed with freedom and justice, they have a great apprehension and danger, they’re full of superstitions, some things we discovered that many prisoners are. And so, I had this idea of setting the production in a prison. It seemed an appropriate metaphor, and we went indeed into a women’s prison first, Holloway Prison in London, to test whether this was just an intellectual idea, or whether it had roots. And we were gratified to find out that the prisoners, they deemed the play, I quote, “highly suitable” to their concerns.

BOGAEV: That’s the understatement of the year.

LLOYD: [LAUGH] Yes. But then, what began as in a way an aesthetic choice, as our work in prison began to deepen, we brought on into the company… we collaborated with a company called Clean Break who work with female ex-offenders, and brought two of their members into the company. And as we began to understand more about being in prison, and spend more time in prison, and be more cognizant of course, the setting of the plays in prison became less a device and more absolutely fundamental to our mission.

BOGAEV: How do you direct in order to meet that standard of, “We’re just looking at people,” we’re almost in a post-gender situation here. What kind of notes do you give your all-female cast to physically play these originally male characters?  Because there’s always the pitfalls of clichéd behavior and crotch-grabbing and scratching, and that can get a little tiresome, and you’re really addressing something so much larger than gender. So how do you get your actors beyond that to something more significant about how men and women inhabit both their bodies and space? 

LLOYD: We worked with a brilliant American movement director called Anne Yee, now based in Dallas. Anne helped us to build this world of men, and at first we started by watching men and just thinking, “How do they go about their daily business?  How do they speak?”  And we noticed all kinds of things about how men are very direct; they take up space; they don’t use their hands at all often when they speak in the way that women modify their speech all the time with their hands.

[CLIP: Julius Caesar]

The skies are painted with unnumbered sparks;
They are all fire, and every one doth shine.
But there’s but one in all doth hold his place.
So in the world: ’tis furnished well with men,
And men are flesh and blood, and apprehended.
Yet in the number I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshaked of motion; and that I am he
Let me a little show it, even in this…

LLOYD: After a while we began to stop worrying about being men, and we just stopped doing the things that might’ve made the audience think, “Ooh, I’m looking at a woman.”  So we edited out the sort of female-ness of it.

BOGAEV: Although there is an interesting thing when a woman playing a woman comes onto the stage.

LLOYD: Yes, of course, that’s when you’re very much reminded that you are looking at a lot of women, and it was those moments in Caesar when Portia came onto the stage and you suddenly thought, “Oh my god, hang on a minute. Harriet Walter is also a woman, but I’d totally forgotten she was.”  But somehow by having built this prison world, they began to learn how a prisoner, male or female, walks down the corridor when there’s a strong apprehension that maybe they might be jumped on, or there’s a sense of holding yourself in a particular way lest you be attacked. And by putting people into prison uniform, they were immediately rendered androgynous. So that was another benefit. So we were working on this parallel world: we had the world of the prisoners and the hierarchy within our prison, and then we had Shakespeare’s characters.

[CLIP: Julius Caesar]

Most high, most mighty, and most puissant Caesar,
Metellus Cimber throws before thy seat
An humble heart.

I must prevent thee, Cimber.
These couchings and these lowly courtesies
Might fire the blood of ordinary men
And turn preordinance and first decree
Into the law of children. Be not fond
To think that Caesar bears such rebel blood
That will be thawed from the true quality
With that which melteth fools…

BOGAEV: I want to talk about these three plays. What was your decision-making process in choosing these plays: Julius Caesar, Henry IV, and The Tempest, rather than, say, Hamlet, or Macbeth, or Antony & Cleopatra?

LLOYD: It began really with Harriet, as I say, she felt she was very good casting for Brutus. Then when we had a success with Caesar, we came back from St. Anne’s Warehouse in America, feeling we really can do this, and set about looking for another play that would be, first of all, good for the ensemble, and also a play that made sense of the prison context. And Henry IV was a play about rehabilitation. Come this young person who’s torn between two kinds of parent: the very stern parent, and the completely indulgent parent. Which way is he going to go? And this was something the prisoners completely recognized.     

BOGAEV: That’s interesting, it’s like putting your past behind you.

LLOYD: Yes, can you put your past behind you, and how hard is it to change?  The actress who played Hal went into prison and stood up, and did the famous Hal soliloquy, saying, you know, “I’m going to imitate the sun, and I’m kind of hidden beneath the clouds but my God watch what happens when I step out, because no one’s expecting me to step out as a virtuous person, so how much more blinding is that going to be for everyone?”  We stood up in prison and one prisoner said, “My God, the governor’s heard that speech often.”  And we said “How’s that?”  And she said, “Well, let me play the governor and I’ll show you.” 

BOGAEV: This is wonderful. They’re teaching you how to workshop.

LLOYD: Yeah, stood up and began speaking it, and this lady playing the governor said “Clara, I think we’ve heard you in here. You were in here six months ago saying this, and absolutely nothing has changed. You’re coming in here asking for parole, what’s to suggest that you’re not going to be back in six months?”  This idea that change is very, very hard… We were very lucky to have a live audio link into prison in our rehearsal, so we would sit around and read a scene, and we’d say to them, “So what is going on?” And they’d say, “Well, the Earl of Northumberland feels guilty. He’s converting his guilt into rage and revenge.”  The point was that these women had lived literally Shakespearean lives. They had experienced betrayal, murder, revenge, banishment. They understood what honor was, because when you’ve lost everything, honor is all that you have left. Somehow we began to learn a great deal from them, as they were learning that they were not voiceless. So we would say to them, “You know that joke you suggested to us?  It went down really well in Brooklyn.”  And they felt buried alive in jail.

BOGAEV: What a lifeline, to hear that. To hear they’re making a mark across the ocean.

LLOYD: Yes, that their voices were being heard not just in London, but across the Atlantic. To them, it was like a kind of miracle.

BOGAEV: There was this sense from people who say the play that perhaps it was easier for you to do Henry IV with an all-female cast because it’s all about the responsibilities of power, but also the destructive potential of swaggering men, swaggering male machismo.

LLOYD: Well I think that both plays… I mean, Caesar, too, was a play about how society forces men to avoid being “womanish,” quote-unquote. But it was Shakespeare saying society forces men not to cry, and yet he wasn’t saying that’s a good thing. And I think one of the things Henry and Caesar also reveal to us, that they’re plays about family and about love, and somehow that was another thing the audiences commented on, that they’d never felt so much love in Caesar between the men. The sense of fathers and sons, and lost sons, bizarrely seemed to become really vivid when played by women. It was strange.

BOGAEV: This is getting back to the prison setting. One of my Folger colleagues saw your production of The Tempest in London… 

[CLIP: The Tempest]

No tongue. All eyes. Be silent.

Music begins.

BOGAEV: …And she wanted to know how you conceived of the wedding masque scene. Because it strays the farthest from the prison setting, but at the same time she felt that the way you staged it seemed to be a metaphor for deprivation and confinement. So, first describe the scene.

LLOYD: Yeah, first of all, we workshopped The Tempest in prison. And one of the things we looked at was ritual in prison. How do you celebrate when you don’t have anything?  So the wedding between Ferdinand and Miranda, which is accompanied by a masque, really did become a wedding in prison. And we looked at what could you get in prison, and what would you dream of having if you couldn’t have anything. So obviously, you can’t have alcohol, but you could have Starbucks. So, at the moment when you’d expect champagne you see cappuccinos. And you could see the bride and groom in a state of ecstasy that they’d gotten cappuccinos, because they couldn’t really afford it more than once a year. So everything became heightened in its detail.

[CLIP continues]

Techno music plays, then fades into quiet, meditative tones. The actors exult as their dreams are projected onto the balloons.

LLOYD: We then projected onto balloons prisoners’ dreams. Images of blue skies, waterfalls, and these went very subtly from seas into fast cars, and then logos for expensive watches, and expensive running shoes, and perfume. And then the McDonald’s sign came up on the balloons and the audience used to erupt in cheers at the sight of the McDonald’s logo on all the balloons. And at that point, Harriet, who was playing Prospero, suddenly called out, and all the house lights came up over the audience. And she ran into the space and took a pencil, and these sixteen gigantic balloons filled with helium: She just smashed them, banged them. They went off like a gun crack around the room, and you could see the audience looking absolutely horrified, like, “What is she doing?” And then, of course, she went into her famous speech… 

[CLIP continues]


As she speaks, she pops balloons, one after another.

Be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;

LLOYD: …About the cloud-capped towers, and, “we are such stuff as dreams are made on,” as if to say all of this stuff is just nothing, and we’re craving things and power and influence and money, but ultimately, it’s all meaningless.

[CLIP continues]

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. Sir, I am vexed…

BOGAEV: I was curious when I heard about your trilogy with an all-female cast. Why do Shakespeare?  Why not just do plays by women?  You could do Caryl Churchill, something from her, Top Girls, or Lynn Nottage, who wrote Ruined, or pretty much anything by Wendy Wasserstein. Why Shakespeare? 

LLOYD: Well, I don’t know whether this is what post-modernism is, I’m not sure. I’ve always thought that post-modernism was taking something that people already know and turning it upside down and putting it in a new light. But I think that we wanted to somehow challenge the establishment and take something that…  I don’t want to say that this was like the Reformation, taking something that had always been done in Latin for thousands of years and saying, “Well, what happens if you read it in English?” But that was how we felt about it. That we were taking something that was certainly since the end of the nineteenth century in England, when Shakespeare started to be done in the U.K. in a more realistic, naturalistic way. Up until that time, as I’m sure many listeners will know, Shakespeare was done in modern dress, in the period of the audience. So you see nineteenth-century etchings of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and they are in Victorian costume, just as in the eighteenth century they were in eighteenth-century costumes. But this must have been a very, very… A kind of Hamilton-like experience for the audience.

BOGAEV: Right, really revolutionary, yeah. It’s always been updated.

LLOYD: You know, you’re watching a story that might be, like in Shakespeare’s time, they were watching a story about Henry IV, history from two hundred years before, performed in fundamentally Elizabethan costumes with some medieval ingredients. Or a Roman play performed in Elizabethan costume about something that’s happened… And of course so it feels like a very modern experience. But we had lost that in the U.K. since the turn of the twentieth century, when we started saying, “So we’ll do Henry IV, so we’ll all dress medieval. Or do Julius Caesar, so we’ll all dress Roman.”  This is a new thing. And I think it hasn’t helped somehow release the universality of these plays, and I think the same in terms of gender, that actually by getting stuck with, “the men have to play the men and the women have to play the women,” they were never intended to be so slavishly attentive to the “literalness” of the people. We were trying to take something where there’s a very received idea about how it should be presented, and just explode it.

BOGAEV: So you were set to go all Martin Luther on their behind.

LLOYD: Yes, exactly.

BOGAEV: There’s something I want to get to before we head… we could keep you here all day and night, but your trilogy is going to be part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival because you also filmed the stage performances. I wondered what it meant for the directing. What did you have to take into consideration to make these things work, both on stage and as films? 

LLOYD: Okay, first of all, I’m very, very skeptical about theater onscreen. Indeed, I’d been asked several times whether I’d be prepared to let it go out as part of NT Live


LLOYD: Meaning our live performances from the National Theatre that go out in cinema and movie theaters. You have them.

BOGAEV: Yes, I’ve seen them. I’ve seen Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet.

LLOYD: Right, well I didn’t want that to happen. It just does a disservice to both mediums. It’s a kind of botched half-hybrid thing. But as we neared the end of this five year project, the question was, “What is the legacy of this?” And particularly for Harriet Walter, who was playing, in one day, Brutus, Prospero, and Henry IV. You know, I began to think, “I’ve got to capture this, because this is some of the greatest performances that people are likely to see of these roles.” 

BOGAEV: And so authentic Shakespearean. I mean, so back in the day. That’s what they did.

LLOYD: Yes. So I decided… And by then, this project had begun at the Donmar, a small three-sided theater, and we had by now exploded into a theater in the round, which offers certain possibilities for filming that a proscenium arch or an end-on, or even a thrust stage doesn’t. In other words, you can shoot it like a movie by getting on the actors’ eye lines. By putting a camera where you would if you were shooting a film, which you can rarely do in a usual theater because the audience is sitting there.

BOGAEV: So you can really place the viewer in the seats of a theater.

LLOYD: Yes, and what I wanted to do was take the audience somewhere they couldn’t possibly have gone. And that was a lot to do with, as I say, getting right in there, over-the-shoulder. And I did a sort of kamikaze thing where I shot two performances like a movie, where I shot from one end one night, and the other end the other night, and then cut them together like a film. And I also used a lot of GoPro, tiny cameras, which were sometimes on the actors’ bodies, on their heads, they were on their chests where we wanted to really get a kind of visceral energy, particularly in some of the more murderous, violent sequences because one of the problems, again, about theater on screen is the lack of real camera movement tends to be quite stage. I didn’t really think that was a good record of this. So, these are not films I’ve made in any sense. They are records, but I think Julius Caesar, in particular, works really well because the audience of our production of Julius Caesar become 400 unpaid extras in the scene in which Caesar is murdered. They don’t realize it’s going to happen, but the murder happens in the audience and that was great fun, putting a camera on that, because obviously the audience didn’t know that was going to happen. [LAUGH] And there was something very exciting about that.

BOGAEV: Well, I hear your reservations about the Frankenstein nature of these film theater hybrids, but I’m so glad you made the films, and I’m so glad that you could spend time with us today. I really appreciated talking with you.

LLOYD: Thank you so much.

WITMORE: Phyllida Lloyd is a film, theater, and opera director whose trilogy of Shakespeare’s plays, Julius Caesar, Henry IV, and The Tempest, were produced in 2012, 2014, and 2016 respectively, by the Donmar Warehouse in London. At the time we recorded this interview, all three productions had just been filmed, and Julius Caesar had been selected for the Edinburgh International Film Festival. It’s scheduled to screen in late June 2017. After that, it will be available in movie theaters in the U.K., followed by a limited release in the U.S. Films of the other two plays will be available later in 2017. “We Are Governed With Our Mothers’ Spirits” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the Associate Producer. It was edited by Gayle Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Chris Charles at the Sound Company in London.

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Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find out more about the Folger at our website, From the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.