The fate of this production of Julius Caesar does, contrary to Shakespeare’s oft quoted line, lie with its stars. And with this production, The Bridge Theatre comes really into play: a shining venue filled with stars, powering one of Shakespeare’s most enduringly relevant tragedies.
This was the noblest Roman of them all: All the conspirators save only he Did that they did in envy of great Caesar. He only, in a general honest thought And common good to all, made one of them. His life was gentle, and the elements So mixed in him that Nature might stand up And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’.
The things you can be relatively certain about with a Sir Nicholas Hytner production of Shakespeare are clarity of story-telling, modernisation of setting, abridgement of text, an attempt at “relevance”, and big marquee names. So it is with his production of Julius Caesar, now playing at the Bridge Theatre, which is a far superior work than the debut offering there, Young Marx.
The downside to this predictability is, alas, almost always a concomitant sense of detachment, a lack of heart, an absence of connection between text and audience – what happens might be easily followed and understood, but the undercurrents, the gracenotes, the sinew of the poetry are almost always lost. The heady glory of the language makes way for a sense of contemporaneous style.
The use of the space and the design by Bunny Christie shapes the entire production, which is played straight through without an interval. Time passes quickly, but sags every now and then. Theatre in the round with groundlings might be the most apt description. The action takes place in a kind of gladiatorial pit, with spaces rising and falling amongst the standing spectators, randomly, suddenly. Crowd movers, as well as cast members, keep the groundlings moving so that the hydraulic systems aren’t impeded. Thus the crowd becomes shoved here and there depending upon who is speaking and about what. The very manner of playing the piece is a reflection of political manouevering.
This is all very well as far as it goes, and does occasionally permit the spirit of Shakespeare’s crowd scenes, some of which are integral to Julius Caesar and are rarely well done in modern productions (realistic crowd acting seems a lost skill), to erupt and convulse, electrifying the mood. It certainly helps Antony’s oration, but other moments, equally critical, are lost in the throng – the brutal murder of Cinna the Poet by an angry mob mistaking him for the Cinna who was a conspirator is lost almost entirely because it happens on the pit floor and the groundlings conceal most of the action, even as it moves amongst them.
Everything is modern – from the costumes to the eclectic array of furniture used for the homes of the various Roman nobles. The togas are not missed really, but the substitution of pistols for daggers does really strike at the heart of the drama. Pistols are detached, hands-off weapons, often ensuring proximity to victims is unnecessary; daggers, however, are very hands-on weapons and when used for murder require personal use, immediacy. Seeing Caesar assassinated by knives is a completely different experience from seeing Caesar assassinated with bullets. It just doesn’t matter as much somehow.
Nor, for that matter, are suicides as shocking when they involve pistols rather than swords. Perhaps it is the lack of blood, perhaps it is the immediacy. But using guns makes all the deaths in the play far more clinical than is ideal. The audience should feel each stroke of every murderous blade; the hail of bullets leaves no room for that and the effect of “Et tu, Bruté?” is largely lost.
The real upside to the choices made in the physical production come from the ever-present sense of populism that engulfs everything. Julius Caesar is a play about the reasons why a government falls, the void that follows the fall, and then the clamour and urgency of those who seek to fill that void with a new regime.
Caesar’s first appearance, wearing jeans, a bomber jacket, and a red baseball cap, manages to evoke Donald Trump, Jimmy Carter and Rupert Murdoch All at once. His sense of elitist entitlement wrapped in indecision and wrong headed big calls also makes you think of both of David Cameron and Theresa May. In his unpolished call to the people and their needs and wants, Mark Antony has the whiff of Jeremy Cobyn’s instinctive understanding of grass roots. The plotting, planning and machinations of Brutus, Cassius, Casca and their fellow assassins reflect the to and fro of the Brexit negotiations. Shakespeare proves that while time may march on, the central concerns of politics remains the same. Change for the hope of gain.
Julius Caesar is a play that can revolve around one character or four/five, depending on the directorial choices. Here, Hytner opts to make this Julius Caesar revolve around Ben Whishaw’s Brutus. It’s a wise move. On any view of it, Brutus is a key player.
Whishaw opts for a slightly more assured version of Q, making Brutus intellectual but cold. There is no sense of passion (from him) in his relationship with his wife Portia, nor in his key relationship with Cassius, even though here Cassius is a woman (the marvellous Michelle Fairley). This is a very asexual, dispassionate Brutus, a lofty intellectual who gets his hands dirty and never quite knows how to live cleanly thereafter.
One of the things that is often overlooked or under-emphasised in productions of Julius Caesar is that Cassius always suggests the path/choice that should be taken and Brutus always decides differently, with disaster the outcome. Neither of them learn from this pattern but the reasons for that are different. Here, Whishaw and Fairley underline this reality and play it – hard.
Whishaw’s coolness reflects off Fairley’s impassioned beliefs. He disregards her instinct, misjudges her ability to read the pulse of the populace, and does not take her instincts for battle seriously. The fact that Cassius is female adds a dimension to this relationship which speaks directly to current public dialogue about equality of the sexes. They make a formidable team, and the best moments of the evening come in their articulate disagreements.
Fairley, like Whishaw, makes Shakespeare’s langauge work. She brings steel and loyalty to Cassius, and her presence is so strong that when David Caulder’s Caesar mocks her “lean and hungry look” it really strikes home – she could be a true revolutionary spirit, but Brutus keeps her in check. And Caesar knows that, even when Brutus and Cassius do not. Hence his final line, after the famous “Et tu, Bruté?” is – “Then fall. Caesar”. He can’t resist Brutus and Cassius when they are aligned and he accepts that.
One of the tragedies in Julius Caesar is that, after Caesar’s dispatch, Brutus and Cassius are never aligned again. Cassius follows Brutus’ decrees, which is not the same thing. Calder, Whishaw and Fairley make all these undercurrents pulse and come alive.
Calder is an excellent Caesar, regal, pompous but clearly out of step with his people. A political mastermind out of phase. His exchanges with Mark Penfold’s Steptoe and Son Soothsayer are more enlightening than is usual. Wendy Kweh, who adds a Melania/Wendi Deng glamour to Calpurnia, makes the most of her scenes with Calder, and together they create a real sense of jeopardy about Caesar’s fateful decision to leave home on the Ides of March.
Adjoa Andoh is a splendidly cynical and caustic (and funny) Casca. She really brings the character into three-dimensional life. It’s the same with Kit Young, whose Octavius appears briefly but leaves a clear impression of the powerful Augustus he will become. Fred Fergus valiantly conveys the frantic death throes of Cinna the Poet.
As Mark Antony, David Morrissey is stoic and sincere, a true soldier. He delivers the famous speech with measured skill, and proves easily believable as a man who can persuade and lead a population. He forged an alliance with Octavius easily, and you get a true sense, through his carefully calibrated performance, of what a great man Caesar once was. When he gives Brutus’ corpse his seal of approval, the hollowness of wasted life echoes loudly.
This is a good Julius Caesar but not a great one. Hytner’s trademark of style over substance does not permit that. Bruno Poet’s lighting works a deal of magic, but the groundlings get in the way more than they assist in the story-telling. Still, with this production, The Bridge Theatre becomes a formidable rival to the West End and the National Theatre in particular.