Wednesday was my first visit to the new Bridge Theatre, the new venture from Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr near Tower Bridge, set up to provide flexible space for new work ( especially important now that much of the West End seems to have become a showcase for musicals and spectacles ). The production of Julius Caesar, under the auspices of the National Theatre ( according to imdb ), has received very warm reviews and was certainly starry – Ben Whishaw, David Morrisey – and advertised itself as being especially pertinent today, with populist demagogues on the march.
The Bridge opened in October 2017. Its performance space can be either a heavily aproned proscenium arch theatre, or a theatre in the round. It was the latter on Wednesday and the ‘Pit’ was used to tremendous effect, with standing members of the audience supplying the crowd in those scenes which required one ( and Julius Caesar is a play about, among other things, crowds and how to sway them ). Matters opened with the seated audience looking down on a U.S. style political rally, complete with rock band, flags, placards and baseball caps emblazoned with CAESAR ( I wanted to buy one for my husband, but he pointed out that it was also a brand of dog food, ho hum ). Mark Anthony (David Morrisey) appeared on ‘stage’ along side the electric guitars, acting as warm-up man and whipper-upper, something which felt absolutely in keeping with the character. Caesar wore a baseball cap and blouson jacket, reminiscent of both Trump and George W.
So the play continued, blocks of the pit cleverly rising and falling to give the actors a ‘stage’. Ben Whishaw and Michelle Fairley, in modern dress as Brutus and Cassius, tip-toeing around the possibility of rebellion against the tyrant, only to go for it, full tilt, were excellent. Fairley in particular impressed me, her speaking of the verse was so lucid and nuanced. If anything, the gender change enhanced the play. First in those scenes with Caesar, highlighting his lazy arrogance and particularly at Phillippi, when Brutus rejects any physical comfort – emphasising the solitariness of the two arch conspirators, even after they have rowed and made up. Whishaw was, as usual, excellent. His Brutus an academic type, noble, yes, but whose purblindness is such a massive handicap.
The funeral orations were well delivered – this was one of the points when the ‘crowd’ came into its own – and the pace of the piece increased, with surging movement and rock music, punctuated by the sound of machine gun fire as we move to the First Triumvirate ( in battle fatigues ) then to Phillippi. The auditorium was raked by search-lights, ‘ash’ dropped from above and artillery sounded across a barbed wire no-man’s-land. The suicides were by gun-shot, but none of this felt out-of-place, so strong was the stage world already created. There was no doubt, either, who was going to be the next dictator.
My one caveat is Caesar himself. David Calder plays an ageing and not particularly charismatic Caesar, but then, perhaps that is the point. For this Caesar everything is very carefully staged, even to the point of wheeling him in, in a wheelchair, after his (reported) epileptic fit, but then getting him on to the ‘stage’ on his feet to speak to the adoring masses. It heightens the parallel with Trump. For me, this element of the analogy to today was a little too strained. In the play as written, the Caesar who is spoken of, by the conspirators, by Anthony, is a dominant and over-whelming personality, with much charm and a charismatic ‘common touch’. This was missing here. But I don’t want to quibble, there is so much that is absolutely wonderful about this production.
A superb staging ( many plaudits to the team which marshalls the audience, especially difficult on Wednesday given the presence of school parties in the Pit ). Lots of pyrotechnics, but all of them in the service of the play and the text.
This Julius Caesar is loud, it is full-throated and has a very, very contemporary feel. Go and see it if you can – it closes on 15th April but tickets are few and far between.
If you enjoyed reading this review and would like tor read others of productions past why not try In Another Part of the Forest The Plough and the Stars Farce at the Criterion The Girl from the North Country