Last year, New York’s Public Theater caused a stir with their production of Shakespeare’s political thriller, as they presented it in modern dress with the eponymous emperor looking remarkably similar to President Donald Trump. What followed was a series of misunderstandings, culminating in the withdrawal of Delta Airlines and Bank of America funding. Nicholas Hytner now takes on Julius Caesar as the second play in the new Bridge Theatre – also a present-day production, but not as divisive on first glance. Tickets are selling fast, but for those who miss out there will be a National Theatre Live broadcast on 22 March.
It is Lupercalia, and Caesar’s supporters are out in force on the streets of Rome to celebrate; the band is playing and there is a sense of unity. There are some, however, who think that Julius Caesar has too much power and is still ambitious for more – and they dread the return of a kingship like in the long banished days of the Tarquinius family’s rule. Cassius heads a faction that plots to kill Caesar before the people make him their king, managing to recruit one of Caesar’s close allies Brutus to the cause. The assassination plan is formed quickly, on a stormy night. Despite warnings from a soothsayer and his wife, Calpurnia, Caesar is persuaded to go to the Senate where he is fatally wounded by all members of the faction. Mark Antony, Caesar’s closest friend feigns submission to the killers, but manages to turn popular opinion against them (even Brutus) with an eloquent speech at the funeral, and a battle ensues.
The play was likely written and first performed in 1599, a time of rising tension as the ageing Elizabeth I refused to name a successor – which ultimately could have ended up in civil war akin to what happens in the play. As ever, Shakespeare has taken some dramatic licence with the history (for example, condensing the time frame to a few days rather than several months to heighten the drama), but at the core it’s a true story and powerfully delivers ideas of fear about abuse of power and the loss of democracy, as well as the role of your conscience and the greater good.
As such, it’s an incredibly apt play for the fragile times in which we live – so it’s no surprise that it’s been getting a bit of an airing of late. It is also something of a cautionary tale, showing that you probably won’t effect real change if you try and bypass the system. Given its continuing relevance, creating a modern-dress show is definitely the best idea as it provides immediate relatability to a 400-year old show about events from 2,000 years ago.
It may be only the second production in the Bridge’s history, but already the flexibility of the performance space is being demonstrated with great skill. For Julius Caesar, the auditorium has been transformed into an almost modern-day Globe; as well as three levels of seating the audience has the chance to ‘promenade’ (though it’s not nearly as posh as it sounds) as the ground floor is a great big pit where patrons and actors mingle, and the audience becomes part of the action. Bunny Christie’s set is sparsely furnished, as sections of the stage rise and fall in different scenes – keeping the audience on their toes from one minute to the next! Bruno Poet’s lighting design and Paul Arditti’s sound design combine to enhance the experience, at times giving it quite a visceral feel.
I was in the pit (hardened by my hours as a groundling at the Globe), and I can thoroughly recommend taking that option if you feel you are up to the task – it is just over two hours straight through, with no opportunity to sit down. You’ll also have to make your peace with the fact that you are unlikely to see every single thing that happens, and that there will always be a few selfish people around (tall, high hairdos, fidgeters, etc.) who will block your view.
My only slight concern at the moment is how the ‘security’ get the audience to move – I found myself very often squashed and pushed because presumably nobody is at the back of the crowd encouraging them to move first and create space. Allowing cans and plastic cups into the pit should also be discontinued unless people have the good sense to hold onto them, as dropped items are a danger to audience and actor alike. This will have to be worked on, but I’m sure once they’ve had a bit more time to get into the swing of things it’ll be fine. As long as you’re prepared for a little discomfort, it is the best way to experience the production as you really do feel involved and valued.
A relatively diverse cast has been assembled, interestingly making most of the anti-Caesar faction female – including Michelle Fairley as ringleader Cassius. You could, therefore, potentially draw another reason for their wish to get rid of Caesar, on top of the more honourable intentions of Brutus and the possible jealousy & ambition from others. Fairley does well not to play Cassius as a stereotypical villain, showing a bit of humanity alongside her manipulation.
Abraham Popoola is fantastic in his dual roles as lead singer of the street band (I’d like to see him up against Liam Gallagher with Oasis’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Star) and member of the faction, Trebonius. He has an imposing presence, and feels well suited to Shakespeare. With Caesar is David Morrissey as loyal friend Mark Antony; there is an honesty about his performance that is extremely engaging, with a particularly powerful version of the famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” speech.
David Calder plays the eponymous leader with great authority, but there is also something about him that seems quite likeable (in spite of Caesar referring to himself in the third person) which makes the people’s love for him more understandable. Opposite him as conspirator Brutus, in some people’s view the play’s central character, is Ben Whishaw. It is a role ideally suited to Whishaw, with the opportunity for introspection as well as oration – he presents us with no doubt as to Brutus’ wish to do what he thinks is best for his compatriots.
My verdict? A visceral & dynamic take on the classic Shakespearean political thriller, with star performances and innovative staging – without question a must-see.
Julius Caesar runs at the Bridge Theatre until 15 April 2018. Tickets are available online or from the box office – limited £15 ‘Mob’ tickets can be purchased via TodayTix on the day of the performance. National Theatre Live tickets are available online or in your local cinema.