Storming into the accolades of theatre praise across London, and already held in high regard by many critics, Sir Nicholas Hytner’s ‘Julius Caesar’ is undeniably a categorical success.
It follows on from Hytner’s triumph with his production of ‘Henry V’, fourteen-years-previous at the National Theatre, but manages to maintain similar philosophies. Shakespeare is artfully re-imagined in the context of turbulent political times. Portraying a relevant, up-to-date version of the Bard’s message, Hytner speaks to the masses and invokes our involvement both politically and physically and where better than The Bridge Theatre, which sets the scene for this ominous series of events.
“Caesar returns in triumph to Rome and the people pour out of their homes to celebrate. Alarmed by the autocrat’s popularity, the educated élite conspire to bring him down. After his assassination, civil war erupts on the streets of the capital.”
The play casts Ben Whishaw as Brutus and Michelle Fairley as a gender-swapped Cassius, leaders of the coup, whilst David Calder plays Caesar and David Morrissey is Mark Antony, who brings Rome back under control after the conspirators’ defeat. Far from the traditionalism and antiquity often associated with established adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, Hytner’s dynamic, modern and subversively rebel-rousing production propels viewers into a world of sedition, politics, and militancy: a reflection of many of the current political and societal issues we face today.
In the context of our own political climate and inherent political awareness, the play doesn’t have to try hard to allude to its relevance to such matters as Bremain vs Brexit, or even its allusions to Trump. The play’s innovative opening immediately starts to blur the lines between fiction and reality; you’ve barely entered, and you are already turned into a clapping, stomping crowd. It’s a truly genius way of introducing the themes of political manipulation and populism.
The auditorium of the newly modernised Bridge Theatre has been transformed to create a versatile space for action. Audiences are able to experience the show either as spectators to the arena, or amongst the action as part of the crowd who both welcomes Caesar back to Rome and stands in the midst of the civil war that erupts following his assassination. Those standing in the pit embody the mob of Roman citizens, and as part of the ‘Republic’ are as integral to the play as the insurgents of the cast themselves. Drawing on the Elizabethan tradition of ‘groundlings’ or ‘commoners’ standing around the stage, most famously demonstrated at The Globe, Hytner combines this with bolder immersive elements. Encouraged to crowd around the rising parts of the stage, and ushered (sometimes quite forcefully) back and forth by ‘security’, this production is a masterclass in audience participation. The brilliantly innovative staging of Shakespeare’s political thriller, with the rise and fall of platforms, creates an immersive experience like no other. So much so, we may interpret the rising and falling of Bunny Christie’s stage as embodying and foreshadowing the rising fate of Caesar, his eventual fallibility, and by default, the fall of Rome itself.
The evening begins with a rebel-rousing rock concert, part of a flag-waving pro-Caesar rally: a band are playing The White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’, beer and coke are on sale, and you can get a red cap with Caesar’s name on it for £4. David Calder’s swaggering, crowd-pleasing Caesar suggests just a hint of a certain American president, who throws his baseball cap into the audience, echoing the propaganda of modern political rallies. Perhaps such Trump-like allusions point to a democracy marginalised, overwhelmed by the political ‘noise’ of campaigning, rallies and political propaganda. Hytner controversially proposes that the ‘real issues’ of our democracy are overpowered by this ‘noise,’ an idea that is awarded more clarity as the play progresses and Caesar, and his beloved ‘Republic,’ begin to show cracks in their inherently fallible foundations.
Caesar’s opponent in the play is the reliably excellent Ben Whishaw as a nervy, bookish Brutus, represented as a classic liberal intellectual. Terrified of the dictator’s drift towards autocracy, he comes to believe, in his naive desperation, that the assassination of Caesar will fix the republic. Whishaw’s pensive, idealistic Brutus manages to be both endearingly naive and quite terrifying as he talks of being ‘sacrificers but not butchers.’
Fairley’s Cassius, in contrast, is astute, alert and pinched with worry. Michelle Fairley is not the first female Cassius, but she brings to the part exactly the right intensity, passion and political pragmatism. She is supported in the performance by Adjoa Andoh, striking as a drily sarcastic Casca who challenges any male who stands in her way. Here, gender politics in the context of the modernity of the play are subtly played out in the overwhelming sense of Cassius’ seemingly superior political judgements, warning against male Brutus’ impatience and fool-hardiness: could we perhaps read Hytner’s intentions here as a narration of rising female agency and ability in the context of a male-centred political world? Do Caesar and Brutus’ untimely ends, as a result of their destructively gung-ho attitudes, warn us against the perils of masculine complacency in the same political context?
Whatever the political undertones behind the characters’ placements, to see the actors up-close-and-personal is quite something. They keep the story alive throughout the 2-hour show, especially with no interval and an audience just 3 inches away from them, and the performances are, even upon such close inspection, undeniably excellent across a large company.
And despite the often challenging Shakespearean language barriers, this star-studded cast, inevitably aided by staging and direction, seamlessly portrays a climate of modern politics in the context of the antiquated verse: the gory depiction of a battlefield in-use did not at all seem at odds with the lyrical and poetic musings of Wishaw’s soliloquy as Brutus towards the end of the play. This not only exemplifies the resounding success of the play but explicitly speaks of the director’s ability to contextualise Shakespeare for a modern audience.
Overall, this exhilarating production prompts the audience to view the play through the full range of senses, paired with the invocation of the viewer’s political ideals to deliver a potent warning about the power of populism. With tickets starting at just £15 for ‘Young Bridge’ members, this production is truly too good to miss!
Photo credit: Lily Sawyer