THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Bridge Theatre, 3 Potters Fields Park, London SE1 2SG
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Julius Caesar is being broadcast live to cinemas on 22 March via NT Live: Click here for details
It begins with huge political rally complete with a rock band blasting out White Stripes numbers, all to welcome the victorious Julius Caesar (David Calder) back from the Gallic wars. He arrives in the packed auditorium wearing baseball cap, leather flying jacket and yes even a long red tie, but instead of ‘Lock her up’ the mob here, brandishing T-shirts and badges shout ‘Do This’. This wink to contemporary events is witty but director Nicholas Hytner mercifully doesn’t lay on the ‘relevance’ with a trowel. This Caesar does not really have any proper contemporary match. What came after him was years of civil war and democracy replaced with the rule of generations of autocrats. The takeaway from all that must be that it’s a lot easier to rid ourselves of an autocrat then of autocracy itself.
Hytner’s modern dress staging reconfigures his wonderfully versatile new theatre as in-the-round. All stalls seats are removed and the promenade audience are cast as the mob. Key to the success of this is Bunny Christie’s simple but clever configuration of platforms, which are lowered and raised and work for all purposes. The marshalling and sometimes cajoling of the promenade audience into being part of the action is expertly achieved. By the way, there are also three tiers of seating above all this.
All of Hytner’s great skills as a director, particularly of modern dress Shakespeare, are to the fore here. The verse is crystalline and clear and never hobbles the action and thanks to a superb cast, allied to a great design team, the piece has the febrile energy of a stadium rock concert. Young audience members marvelling at their chance to get up close and personal with the moody Ben Whishaw.
Whishaw is in fine form as the patrician, bookish, and rather unworldly Brutus, the liberal intellectual who detests the mob. David Morrissey plays Mark Anthony as a scruffy schemer who uses his Jack the Lad charm on the populace with the same skill he’d use when wooing a female conquest. The great David Calder is a charismatic, sly and totally narcissistic Caesar and Michelle Fairley as a gender-swapped Cassius is clear eyed and pragmatic. She and gender-swopped Adjoa Andoh, as a feisty Casca, dominate the scenes they are in.
The modern costuming does present a problem though. With everyone in grungy shades of black and grey it is difficult at times to make out who are the plotters and who is on what side. This doesn’t help in a piece stuffed with secondary characters and sub plots.
Paul Arditti’s sound design, especially in the battle scenes, is an ongoing onslaught on the senses but it adds to the genuine sense of post-assassination anarchy in the air. This could be Maidan Square, Ukraine.
In the end the play is a cautionary tale about the risks of violent regime change and with this wonderfully absorbing, accessible and urgent production, Hytner has taken his new theatre to new heights.