When in Rome do what the Bad Girls do…

Julius Caesar ran Rome like a prison.

That made the setting of the Donmar’s production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar even more gripping as the inmates of a women’s prison perform this tale of the death of the great dictator.

Harriet Walter as Brutus is a sympathetic slayer of the tyrant, and, together with Frances Barber as Caesar, leads a strong cast in a performance full of the menace of a prison riot. And the two hours of plot, mayhem and retribution raced by without an interval.

The only weakness, as always, is a weakness in the play itself. There is no real explanation of why Caesar had to be deposed (perhaps the bard assumed his audience had a greater knowledge of Roman history), and no explanation at all why Mark Antony would seek to avenge the monster. But that minor irritation was swept away in this Bad Girls meets Stomp version of events. From rock opera opening to the Iron Butterfly drum solo battle scenes this was played with a pace only equalled by the recent all black cast at the Noel Coward Theatre.

And yet the slower and more deliberate passages – Antony’s over the body of Caesar, Brutus before the battle – are delivered with a power and clarity rarely evident in a traditional cast.

The bare grey of the prison block was a neutral canvass for cast to play against. The soothsayer was childlike and more compelling for that in her soft warning of the Ides of March. More chilling in her reminder that the day was not yet done. And when the murder came, Caesar was seated among the audience. Senators aghast at brutality in their midst.

In a trick learnt from many performances of Macbeth, the dead Caesar, like Banquo’s ghost, appeared on stage from nowhere. As an apparition in Brutus’ dreams, and as a silent witness to Antony’s revenge. But even this shade cannot escape the jailers as lights out sounds and the cell doors are slammed shut on a fabulous night at the Donmar.