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Julius Caesar review at Bridge Theatre, London – ‘a kinetic, promenade staging’

Ben Whishaw in Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre, London. Photo: Manuel Harlan Ben Whishaw in Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre, London. Photo: Manuel Harlan

This is the season of Caesar. Last year Robert Hastie started his reign as artistic director of Sheffield Theatres with the play and the Royal Shakespeare Company presented a sandals-and-togas version as part of its Rome season, before revisiting the same events with its adaptation of Robert Harris’ Imperium.

It doesn’t take a soothsayer to figure out why Shakespeare’s play of political power games, conspiracies, fire, fury, assassination and its aftermath feels so current.

In his second production at the new Bridge Theatre Nicholas Hytner hasn’t gone quite as far as New York’s Public Theatre did recently in presenting Caesar as a tangerine-skinned loudmouth with a fondness for outsize ties. 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.

In a demonstration of the new theatre’s versatility, the Bridge has been reconfigured in-the-round with the action playing out on a central platform as well as in the surrounding pit. Promenade tickets are available for those who want to get up close to the action and possibly get some of Ben Whishaw’s sweat on them.

The audience enters to the familiar thump of Seven Nation Army. A rally is in progress. There are banners and chanting and Abraham Popoola – winner of best actor at last year’s The Stage Debut Awards – up on the stage giving it his all as the frontman of a street band. There’s even merchandise, in the form of red baseball caps with the word Caesar emblazoned on them.

Only once the crowd has been sufficiently warmed up does the play proper begin. David Calder’s Caesar is more dignified than the current incumbent of the White House, more statesman-like. He works the crowd well, but there’s also a sense he’s going through the motions.

Whishaw’s Brutus has the air of a man older than his years. He has an agitated, nervy quality but there’s also something prim about him and, later, when his hand is coated from wrist to elbow in Caesar’s blood he manages to look both aghast and elated. What he lacks, though, is the instinctual understanding of the crowd that David Morrissey’s Mark Antony displays.

When we first glimpse Morrissey, he’s very much a part of the Caesar machine. He’s a rumpled, untucked and unshaven individual (looking a bit like Steve Bannon if he’d been more genetically blessed and had a soul), but after Caesar’s death he comes into his own. Though he makes claims to the contrary – “I am a plain, blunt man” – he has a masterful grasp of the orator’s art. He knows how to use words to their best effect. As his voice reverberates around the room – care of sound designer Paul Arditti – Morrissey conveys this in his performance. He delivers the “Friends, Romans, Countryman” speech with real oratorical finesse but also with a sense of Mark Anthony’s command of the crowd, his understanding of the effect his speech is having on those listening.

The audience members in the pit are a key part of the fabric of the production. We’re kept on our toes. 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.

Hytner keeps the whole thing moving at a fair lick. The nature of the staging allows for swift scenes changes and there’s a sense of motion throughout.

Julius Caesar can so often feel like a lopsided play – its most famous scenes come at the midway point and there’s a lot of business needs to happen after that. The battle scenes that follow the funereal speechmaking can often be a bit tedious. Here they’re made to feel kinetic and enveloping, thanks to the combined efforts of Hytner, designer Bunny Christie and lighting designer Bruno Poet. There are clouds of smoke, rains of debris and a hazy orange glow.

It’s during these battle scenes that Michelle Fairley’s Cassius, whose performance is understated to begin with, starts to shine. Her anguish about the world the conspirators have unleashed through their actions is palpable. Chop off one head and another will grow in its place. Fairley is one of a number of the characters played by female actors – Adjoa Andoh makes an impact as an intense, if underused Casca.

This isn’t Hytner’s subtlest work as a director of Shakespeare, but nor is it intended to be. Far more than Young Marx, it really shows what the Bridge Theatre’s auditorium can do. Though that said, for all its flash, there are moments that don’t quite click, moments that feel like they belong in a more conventionally staged production.

None of this dampens the fact that this remains a potent essay on the performance of politics and what it is to be popular, an exploration of what people think they want from a leader and the leader they end up getting.

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Nicholas Hytner directs a kinetic promenade production of Shakespeare’s play of politics, power and populism