Julius Caesar – Bridge Theatre

Julius Caesar, Bridge Theatre

‘The fault… is not in our stars / But in ourselves… think of the world’. No matter where Julius Caesar is performed or when it is set, as these commuted lines demonstrate, this 400-year old play is always incredibly prescient, asserting the foolishness of rash action and the arrogance of politicians. Yet, over-hasty decisions are made by officials all the time, ones that have avoidable consequences had they been given proper thought and chosen for the right reasons. And while the assassination of a leader may be the ultimate political act, nobility of intention ultimately results in uncertainty, fear and a dangerous power vacuum.

Many of Shakespeare’s plays examine the corrupting and destructive desire for power that urges men to ruin or, more often, murder their friends. When Macbeth plunges daggers into Duncan’s chest, it is a lust for Kingship that has driven him to it; Claudius, intending to wed his sister-in-law, pours poison in the ear of Hamlet’s father to feed his monarchical ambition, while Lear’s grasping daughters secure their inheritance and his crown, but turf-out their ill father to wander in the wilderness. But none of these characters are allowed to enjoy their victory for long, those who falsely obtain power are punished, the blood on their hands being a symbolic first step to their own demise.

Julius Caesar follows the same course, considering two types of power – the dictator and parliamentary approaches – leaving it up to individual productions and the audience to decide which (if either) offers the most chance of happiness for a nation. At the start of the play Caesar is triumphant, returned from Gaul feted, loved and invincible, a colossus bestriding the world, and we hear rather than see that he is a dictator, an emperor, near enough a King trying to rule without democratic process. Pitted against him are a band of Senators who fear their ‘overmighty’ ruler and determine that for the good of the Republic he must be assassinated. Although led by the noble Brutus whose honourable conscience urges action to assuage his principles, the other conspirators have muddier means, and so Shakespeare offers a fascinating debate about the right to kill for a supposed greater good.

This has long been one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, and the buzz surrounding the first few performances of Nicholas Hytner’s interpretation, and its excellent cast, has raised considerable expectations. And the excitement is entirely deserved because the Bridge Theatre’s new production of Julius Caesar is magnificent, energetic and perfectly conceived, with a vision that not only brings a new clarity to the play but is consistently applied to every imaginatively staged and riveting minute of this two-hour show. Yes, it’s loud, brash and even a tad gimmicky in places, it starts with a blaring concert and ends celebrating the name of a ‘glorious’ new leader, but this rock-and-roll Shakespeare has an emotional depth and force that is never less than entirely compelling.

This in-the-round / promenade (for the pit audience) production, is a marvel of design ingenuity. Created by Bunny Christie, multiple platforms rise from the floor to create stages, homes, the Senate and the battlefield, placing the characters above the crowd and lending an authenticity to the moments of genuine oration and spectacle. The whole place feels like a boxing ring or a bullfighting arena, starkly lit by Bruno Poet and carried through into the performances as David Calder’s Caesar makes his entrance like a victorious champ returning to the ring for one last bout. It feels appropriate for what follows, as soldiers and politicians go head to head in a fight to the death.

Of the many intriguing elements in Hytner’s approach, the clear divide he draws between the two camps brings real clarity to why the story unfolds as it does. Caesar, Mark Anthony and even Octavian are strategic, powerful men who think logically about what must be done, while the conspirators, led by Brutus, are cerebral, carefully arguing their case with precedents and regulation using assassination as a theoretical act, without properly understanding the physical effect it will have on them or the ability to foresee, or satisfactorily conduct, the war which follows.

The conspirators don’t feel dangerous as such, a deliberate choice, and while they do kill a man, Hytner makes them seem like a group of liberals, bogged down in the intellectual cause and utterly out of their depth. A sly hint too of the distance of politicians from the will of the people and how little they understand what people really want from government. How timely that feels.

The portrayal of Brutus underscores all of this with Ben Whishaw easily delivering one of his best stage performances to date, and that is a high bar indeed. Brutus is actually quite a difficult role and is often the weakest aspect of productions. Noble in both behaviour and respected lineage, the contradiction of his friendship with Caesar and decision to end his life can make the character seem too remote. But Whishaw sidesteps this with an idea of Brutus’s essential fallibility that offers new insight into his behaviour and to the eventual failure of the central plot.

Whishaw’s bookish Brutus, for all his academic prowess, is shown to be a terrible decision-maker – something more clearly marked in Whishaw’s performance than previously seen. As unofficial leader, he repeatedly overrules the cautious and more astute Cassius to take the wrong path, leading to their downfall. The decisions to only kill the dictator, to bathe their hands in Caesar’s blood, to let Mark Anthony speak to the mob alone and to face his enemy at Philippi where he then attacks too early are used by Whishaw to demonstrate Brutus’s arrogance and lack of strategic thinking.

Casting Cassius as a woman – a superb interpretation by Michelle Fairley – only adds even more weight to Brutus’s flaws as he becomes a mansplaining fool, patronising his female colleagues who have considerably more insight that he does. Whishaw’s Brutus believes he is a good man and for a while the audience thinks so too, but for all his conscience-wrangling before the act, he has no insight into himself or ability to see beyond the intellectual liberal cause he espouses. He is no man of the people and Whishaw shows with incredible clarity that Brutus aligns with Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes, a man driven to destruction by his own fatal flaw, an inability to see the world as it really is.

By contrast David Morrissey’s Mark Anthony is fully a man of the world, not remotely sensitive, arrogant and determined to enjoy life’s pleasures, but steeped in military knowledge and loved by the mob which makes him a far shrewder politician than his counterparts. Morrissey shows that love for a fellow soldier is more real than the false idea of friendship offered by the political elite, and his carefully controlled oration at Caesar’s funeral is brilliantly delivered as he sets aside the microphone to walk into the crowd, genuinely creating a sense of outrage and thirst for revenge that fills the auditorium. Unlike Brutus, Morrisey’s Mark Anthony knows exactly who he is and has the savvy to evoke a chaos in Rome that he knows exactly how to control.

The gender-blind casting is a production highlight, fitting seamlessly into a traditionally male-dominated play, adding a modern spin, while allowing Michelle Fairley as Cassius, Adjoa Andoh as Casca and Leila Farzad as Decius Brutus in particular to deliver top-notch performances as co-conspirators. Fairley’s Cassius is full of bitter scorn for the great leader she once rescued from drowning, and her demands for equality seem to speak to the ages. Fairley charts how Cassius’s manipulation of Brutus is abruptly turned around when she is forced to concede to what she supposes is his greater understanding, which adds fury to their confrontation before Philippi as she viciously chastises him for the mess he’s created.

Andoh’s Casca is a glowering presence who enjoys the grubby criminality of murder far more than ideals of liberating the Republic, while Farzad brilliantly captures the contrast between thought and deed as her confident Decius Brutus leads Caesar to his death then promptly bursts into tears afterwards, overcome by the reality and stain of what they’ve done. Through all this David Calder’s small role as the hardly seen titular dictator haunts everyone, a man who dons a politician’s suit under the slogan ‘Do This! (cleverly taken from Antony’s line in Act 1, Scene 2 “When Caesar says, ‘do this’, it is performed”), but retains his military bearing. Calder is commanding and ‘constant as the northern star’ but leaves the audience to decide whether he deserved to die.

Nicholas Hytner’s production of Julius Caesar is nothing short of Roman triumph, capturing the wonderful lyricism of Shakespeare’s writing, in what are some of his most beautiful speeches, with an urgency of action that means two hours just races by. The production vision is so strong and so consistently applied that a plot that starts in Brutus’s living room and ends at the wire-strewn battlefield of Philippi seems a natural progression. Whether you’re being slightly pushed around in the pit or safely seated, once again the striking modernity of the play, of people who kill for power and leave disaster in its place, rings out. It is humanity’s poor thinking not destiny that causes the world’s problems, and 400 years after it was first performed this play reminds us this is still the case. So, listen to Caesar’s moto and get a ticket for this thrilling production while you can – “Do This!”

Julius Caesar is at the Bridge Theatre until 15 April with an NT Live cinema screening on 22 March. Tickets start at £15, with standing tickets available to be part of the Roman crowd. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1   


About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of interesting cultural activities in London, covering everything from theatre to exhibitions, films and heritage. I am part of the London theatre critic team for The Reviews Hub where I have professionally reviewed over 350 shows. It was set up in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

3 responses to “Julius Caesar – Bridge Theatre

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    Thanks for this. While I’m glad you enjoyed it I don’t think it’s for me as you seem to confirm what Michael Billington only implied. It’s amazing the difference word order can make, isn’t it? “Casting a woman as Cassius” is fine by me but you say “Casting Cassius as a woman” which, experience suggests, I won’t like. You do, however, go on to talk of ‘gender blind casting’ which I’ve always understood to mean ignoring the sex of the actor but leaving the character unchanged. So, are Cassius, Casca, etc male or female in this production? I was already rather deterred by the ‘promenade’ idea, which is why I was looking to reviews before deciding whether to go. “Rock ‘n’ roll Shakespeare” doesn’t really appeal either. To (mis)quote David Bowie “This aint rock n roll. This is tyrannicide”

    Your musing on assassinations is interesting but “When Macbeth plunges daggers into Duncan’s chest, it is a lust for Kingship that has driven him to it”? Ahem…nothing to do with his missus, then? Iirc Macbeth’s early thoughts are along the lines of “If chance will have me King, why, chance may crown me without my stir.” and the fact that, before he gets home, he sees Malcolm as the obvious obstacle suggests he expects to be king after Duncan has left the scene in the ordinary course of events. Anyway, I hope they don’t mess about with the characters in the Duff/Kinnear Macbeth now that I’ve got a ticket (16 March). Will you be reporting on that and Long Day’s Journey into Night (which I’m seeing the day after Macbeth) here or on The Reviews Hub? I haven’t read your review of John yet as I’ve booked for that on 19 Feb. I’ll put a little comment on James Graham’s The Culture, which I’m seeing on 10 Feb alongside my thoughts on John.

    I’ll miss seeing David Morrissey at the Bridge but I suspect he won’t miss me. One of my most cringe-worthy moments came after seeing him as Macbeth at Liverpool Everyman. I saw the first preview and he was absolutely fine except that he said ‘what’s the boy Duncan Was he not born of woman?’ then, realising his mistake, repeated the line correctly (‘what’s the boy Malcolm….). A few nights later I was at the box office buying tickets for something else and saw him sitting alone in the bar so I congratulated him on his performance then, for some reason, thought it would be a good idea to say ‘bet you won’t forget getting Malcolm mixed up with his father in a hurry’. He took it in good part, replying ‘oh, you were at the first performance, then’ but I wanted the ground to swallow me up as I instantly realised I’d just reminded him of one of his errors an hour or so before he was due on stage. Still, he’s a fine Everyman-trained pro so I don’t suppose it worried him as much as it did me!

    • Maryam Philpott

      Morning John and thanks for your thoughts as always. I think it’s fair to say in this production that Cassius et al are played as women which, for me, added a interesting dimension to the relationship between the conspirators that sets this apart from other productions.

      It’s a shame you won’t see it, it really is thrilling and brilliantly staged. Hytner always has such a clear and consistent vision for Shakespeare that always makes his productions both memorable and worth seeing. As you probably guessed by now, I do like to see plays I know well given fresh perspective and that’s one of the biggest successes of this version.

      I’m sure David Morrissey has forgiven you, and I’m looking forward to the NT’s version of Macbeth which I will be writing about here in early March. The motivation for Duncan’s murder will depend on the extent to which you think Macbeth has his own agency in the play rather than being driven by ‘fate’ or the goading of his wife – does she merely give voice to the evil that nonetheless lurks within him? And those are decisions each production has to make for itself. Let’s revisit our debate when we’ve both seen the NT production.

      And Long Day’s Journey into Night is the forthcoming review, it’ll be up here next week. Enjoy your next theatre weekend.

  • Charles I: King and Collector – Royal Academy | Cultural Capital

    […] its forms, that has played out across the centuries. The Bridge Theatre’s brilliant revival of Julius Caesar is a reminder that these debates have raged for millennia and Nicholas Hytner’s fascinating […]

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