Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre
There’s a slight worry early on in Nicholas Hytner’s thrilling promenade production of Julius Caesar that it’s all about to go full Trump. Red caps are on sale everywhere you look, with David Calder’s titular character entering as if he’s come straight from the golf course. Yet the director is smarter than that. He avoids the easy route, not just skewing America’s Blowhard in Chief but a broader notion of populism – why else would a live band kick things off by blasting the Corbynista banger Seven Nation Army?
As Calder’s Caesar lazily reigns with a mixture of insouciant charm and childish tyranny, Brutus (Ben Whishaw) and Cassius (Michelle Fairley) plot with varying degrees of reluctance to end the ascendance of a leader not fit to rule. Marc Anthony (David Morrissey), meanwhile, is clinging to his man of the people public persona – never planning, exactly, but certainly prepared for his chance in the spotlight.
It should be made clear that this review was written from the pit, the reviewer one of the frothing masses rallying at the feet of Rome’s finest. It’s hard to tell how much of the energy of the promenade setting – where audience members chant and cheer, infiltrated by soldiers and sympathisers, one giant moving body only acknowledged when it serves some political purpose – translates to the seats.
There is the danger that, despite Hytner’s deft use of an unspecified modern setting, this Caesar may come across a tad more conventional when you’re not in its guts. The music is a bit naff, the outfits feel like modern dress Shakespeare cosplay, and the narrative loses steam once Caesar’s dead body disappears. And even if you are in the belly of the beast, the Bridge’s surroundings, and the building itself, are so City slick that being in the pit feels a bit too calculated, as if the theatre’s self-consciously aping its hipper European cousins.
Nevertheless, take away the production’s key gimmick and there is still a lot to recommend, namely its sensational central performances. Calder is no Trumpish buffoon, but rather a man made soft and arrogant by power, while Fairley is steely in her resolve to set about change. Whishaw’s Brutus has the sensitivity we would expect from Paddington Bear – he’s intelligent and erudite, an ostensible voice of reason who fails because he can’t bring himself to see things from the people’s perspective.
Yet it is Morrissey’s chest-thumping, truly rousing Marc Anthony that drives Hynter’s point home. You can lop off the head of the populist host, you can stab it in the back, drown it in Russian scandals or even impeach it – if you don’t identify the sickness at its core, then they’ll always be another body ready to do its bidding.
Photo: Manuel Harlan
Julius Caesar is at the Bridge Theatre from 20th January until 15th April 2018. For further information or to book a visit the theatre’s website here.