Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, as reimagined by Nicholas Hytner, is an exquisitely bold, anarchic production in modern dress that drives home the unchanging nature of politics. In the 1930s, George Orwell observed that ‘political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable’, a sentiment that The Bard well understood in his construction of the assassination of Julius Caesar and the willingness of the populace to be swept up in political propaganda – a truism that we witness today with wars without end and the fabrications that preceded Brexit – nothing has changed.
The logic for Caesar’s assassination, as Ben Whishaw’s Marcus Brutus tells a malleable, funereal crowd, is one that borders on virtue: ‘Had you rather Caesar were living and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men?’ With this statement, he exonerates himself and the actions of his co-conspirators. They are not cold-blooded murderers but benevolent protectors, safeguarding the Roman populace from the brutality of Caesar’s despotic rule.
David Morrissey’s bombastic and dangerous Mark Antony is no less cunning. He refutes Brutus’ statement of ‘just cause’ in a calculated use of emotive language. Antony employs a microphone to blast the opening phrase of his eulogy: ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears’, being well aware that the crowd has already sided with Brutus who has spoken before him. In a ploy to calm the blood-thirsty Romans, Antony astutely praises Caesar’s assassins as ‘honourable men’, but the moment he senses his power to sway the crowd, he abandons the microphone, speaks plainly to them and flaunts a parchment with Caesar’s seal. What he professes it contains is the moment that Antony reveals himself – not as a man driven by revenge for Caesar’s death – but one who is thirsty for power, blood and war.
It is a tribute to Shakespeare’s writing that no matter how innovative a production – and Hytner’s may well be the most innovative thus far – it is the text that prevails. This play could be staged without a set and its language would still carry it through.
But to discuss the set – and the 900-seat colossus that is the magnificent Bridge Theatre – some of the seating has been removed to allow for a pit-promenade area in which members of the stand-up audience can crowd around the rising platforms that appear and disappear in Bunny Christie’s ingenious set design that enhances the arena-like space. Theatre-goers who choose this immersive experience, rather than enjoying the action from the stalls, also fill in as actors who jeer and cheer – whipped into a frenzy by David Calder’s highly narcissistic Caesar, who revels in flamboyant entrances. The security staff also serve as fascist-like thugs – reminiscent of Mussolini’s Blackshirts, shouting and pushing the stand-up audience back to make way for the platforms that ascend from, and disappear into, the floor.
The play is not without its problems. Ben Whishaw’s Brutus, who passionately professes his love for Caesar, caves too easily when confronted with Michelle Fairley’s scheming Cassius. In the early scenes, Fairley does not embody the quiet, death-like cunning that makes Cassius the most interesting character in the play, and Whishaw’s Brutus would do well to convey an internal struggle before conceding to the murder of his beloved friend, lest we think he is a moral weakling and his love for Caesar false – but maybe that is the point – there are no heroes in Julius Caesar, only self-serving senators who cloak their murderous actions in moral platitudes. Both Whishaw and Fairley convince in later scenes, but the initial set up for the assassination lacks the ruthless thrust that drives the action of the play. Overall, their performances are cutting edge, as is Adjoa Andoh’s interpretation of the acid-tongued Casca, Kit Young’s cool and prescient Octavius, and the wifely roles so deftly played by Wendy Kweh’s Calpurnia and Leaphia Darko’s Portia.
Paul Arditti’s sound design and Bruno Poet’s lighting design drive home the terrifying atmosphere of war-making death and destruction a lived-in experience through ear-splitting sounds of battle and shard-like intrusions of light, an absolute mastery of their craft and one, among many reasons, that makes this Julius Caesar a production not to be missed.
Review by Loretta Monaco
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 Bridge Theatre’s auditorium is transformed for Nicholas Hytner’s promenade staging of Shakespeare’s political thriller.
Until 15 April 2018
3 Potters Fields Park
London SE1 2SG