Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre, London – review round-up

David Calder in Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan David Calder in Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan
by -

Nicholas Hytner kicked off his reign at the National with a timely revival of Henry V, one that emphatically echoed contemporary political events in Iraq. Fourteen years later, the second production at his spanking new Bridge Theatre is another reimagined Shakespeare for our turbulent political times: a promenade production of Julius Caesar.

Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr: ‘It must be time to look beyond the commercial West End’

Hytner’s modern-dress staging, which runs until mid-April, reconfigures this versatile new space after its inaugural production of Richard Bean’s Young Marx last October, and casts Ben Whishaw as Brutus, David Morrissey as Mark Antony, David Calder as Caesar, and Michelle Fairley as a gender-swapped Cassius.

It’s one of several recent revivals of Shakespeare’s raucous Roman history play, following the RSC’s cripplingly conventional staging last spring, Sheffield Theatre’s thrilling version in May, and the controversial New York Public Theater production in Manhattan’s Central Park last summer, which saw a Trump-lookalike Caesar stabbed to death.

But can Hytner turn Julius Caesar into a similarly compelling comment on current affairs? Do the critics swear allegiance to his starry cast, or carry out character assassinations on them? Is this the first five-star hit – in more ways than one – of 2018?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews…

Julius Caesar – Reimagined in-the-round

Ben Whishaw and Michelle Fairley in Julius Caesar. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Ben Whishaw and Michelle Fairley in Julius Caesar. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The two Nicks’ £12 million theatre is an adaptable space that can mutate from proscenium arch, to in-the-round, to thrust stage, production by production. For Young Marx, it was the former, but Julius Caesar sees it reworked in-the-round, with the audience cast as mob. Does this change pay dividends?

“The audience members in the pit are a key part of the fabric of the production,” explains Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★★). “It’s like being at Shakespeare’s Globe without the prospect of being rained on, coupled with a very middle-class mosh pit.”

“We become Roman citizens, protestors, and mourners. We’re beckoned forward and shunted backwards, and during the assassination scene – in which guns are used instead of daggers – we are ordered to drop to the floor.”

“There is also a genuine sense of anarchy to the post-assassination turmoil,” comments Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★). “Kate Waters as fight director, Bruno Poet on lighting design and Paul Arditti as sound designer turn the ensuing civil war into an affair of sense-bombarding horror.”

“It’s two hours straight through, which adds to the intensity,” adds Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★). “Everything in the staging is larger than life: the weather is apocalyptic, the military battles deafening, the politics diabolical. There is nothing subtle or sophisticated here. It’s an onslaught — on the emotions, the senses, the eardrums.”

“It’s all tremendously gripping,” according to Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★), while Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★★★★) hails it as “forcefully theatrical”, Mark Shenton (London Theatre, ★★★★) calls it “thrilling”, and Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★) praises it’s “unflagging immediacy.”

“The ripple and rhythms of [the crowd’s] movements, its attentive listening and reactions, led by actors and by a remarkably effective team of wranglers, give the production enormous dramatic punch,” writes Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★).

“The raised floor proves to be studded with baffling platform sections rising and falling in new configurations as scenes change, so that eventually a real sense of national upheaval takes you over,” concurs Libby Purves (TheatreCat, ★★★★★). “Two hours flashed by in anxious tense silences, rousing speeches, eavesdropping on conspiracy, fleeing through the smoke of battle.”

“Far more than Young Marx, it really shows what the Bridge Theatre’s auditorium can do,” concludes Tripney.

Julius Caesar – Red caps and riots

Rosie Ede and Sid Sagal in Julius Caesar. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Rosie Ede and Sid Sagal in Julius Caesar. Photo: Manuel Harlan

It’s a thumbs-up for this first flirtation with the Bridge Theatre’s flexibility then, but does Hytner succeed in making Roman political wrangling relevant today?

“Where the RSC recently went for old-school togas and sandals, Hytner leaves us in no doubt he wants to hold a mirror up to our own age,” remarks Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★). “Red baseball caps, along with T-shirts, badges and other items, are on-sale during a festive prelude when a hipster band revs up the crowd with loud rock numbers.”

“Hytner hasn’t gone quite as far as New York’s Public Theater did recently in presenting Caesar as a tangerine-skinned loudmouth with a fondness for outsize ties,” continues Tripney. “He resists relocating things wholesale to Donald Trump’s America, rather he focuses on the mechanics of populism and the cult of the leader – with some cracking battle scenes thrown in for good measure.”

“Unlike Lenny Henry’s turn last year as that other tyrant Arturo Ui, the comparison with America’s president isn’t over-egged here,” agrees John Nathan (Metro, ★★★★). “Rather, the play’s cautionary tale on the dangers of violent regime change is allowed to evolve more subtly and make its full impact.”

It’s a production that makes the play “politically urgent” according to Billington, while for Lukowski “it whizzes by with all the sickening lurch of twenty-first century politics” and for Taylor it confirms Hytner as our “pre-eminent interpreter of Shakespeare in modern dress.”

“For all its insight into ambition and the power of rhetoric, Julius Caesar is never going to be one of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays,” writes Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★). “Yet this is an accessible, absorbing staging that demonstrates the rich potential of Hytner’s barely four-month-old venue.”

Julius Caesar – Friends, Romans, countrymen

Ben Whishaw in Julius Caesar. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Ben Whishaw in Julius Caesar. Photo: Manuel Harlan

There are few ensembles on the London stage to rival this one right now. Whishaw, star of both the James Bond and Paddington franchises, has developed into a consistently compelling stage actor, most recently appearing in Christopher Shinn’s Against at the Almeida, and in Calder, Morrissey and Fairley, Hytner has three proven stars of stage and screen.

“Whishaw has made some rum – if laudably experimental – stage-career choices in the past few years, but he shines as Brutus, giving us a diffident, bearded, bookish type who’s straining to think through every detail even as events hurtle forward, every word of his lucid, considered,” writes Cavendish.

“He is, I suppose, a classic liberal intellectual,” adds Lukowski, while for Hitchings he “captures the fussy manner and donnish arrogance of this intelligent yet unworldly figure” and for Crompton he is “a charismatic but fatally flawed liberal thinker, forever stroking his beard and eyebrows, bespectacled and blinded by his own cleverness.”

Morrissey – excellent in his last stage role in Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen – is superb here again by most accounts. For Billington he’s “the perfect embodiment of the bumptious opportunist who will promise anything to get public support”, while for Tripney he’s “a rumpled, untucked and unshaven individual” with “a masterful grasp of the orator’s art.”

David Morrissey in Julius Caesar. Photo: Manuel Harlan
David Morrissey in Julius Caesar. Photo: Manuel Harlan

“Coming over like some ageing Jack the Lad now putting on the pretence of being a plain, blunt man, David Morrisey’s charismatic Mark Antony delivers a masterpiece of populist rhetoric – flattering the mob, resorting to story rather than to logic, appealing to the instincts rather than to reason, stealthily fomenting unrest,” describes Taylor.  “Everything is for its effect in the moment.”

There’s nothing but praise for Calder and Fairley, too. “Calder’s Caesar, far from seeming a fascist monster whose overthrow we automatically cheer, emerges as a charismatic crowd-pleaser whose first instinct is to hurl his baseball cap into the audience,” writes Billington. “Only gradually do we see that this flesh-pressing figure is a dangerous autocrat.”

“He is not exactly Donald Trump, but the parallels are pretty apparent and he shares the tangerine tyrant’s desperation for the adulation of the mob,” adds Lukowski.

Fairley, meanwhile, brings “exactly the right intensity, passion and political pragmatism” to the part of Cassius, according to Billington, and is “wonderfully clear-eyed and passionate” according to Taylor.

Julius Caesar – Is it any good?

Abraham Popoola in Julius Caesar. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Abraham Popoola in Julius Caesar. Photo: Manuel Harlan

It’s certainly an improvement on the lukewarm Young Marx, that’s for sure. Hytner proves he can still shake up Shakespeare to make it resonate in modern times with a thrilling, thumping in-the-round re-imagination. There’s nothing but thumbs up for the Bridge Theatre’s furniture rearrangement, and nothing but high praise for an impressive ensemble.