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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   

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Road – Royal Court

Road. Royal Court

Back in 1999 the League of Gentlemen included a significant sketch about the effects of northern playwrights in their live tour show. It gently mocked their poetic style with mini-monologues that built to a rising chant, arguing that rather than merely reflect the world around them, writers such as Willy Russell, John Godber and Jim Cartwright had enshrined a particular vision of northern lives that had become impossible to shake off, which is perhaps now ripe for rediscovery. For the most part, their plays fell out of fashion and while Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, Blood Brothers and Shirley Valentine continue to attract audiences, it’s been a while since a major London theatre has produced a show by one of the key drivers of northern drama.

Jim Cartwright’s Road, returns to the Royal Court more than 30 years after it debuted in 1986, examining the lives of one set of residents in a generic Lancashire town. And while the odd accent drops by from Newcastle, it tells a story of poverty, hopelessness and futile ambition, yearning for a better future and nostalgic for a happier past. Road is essentially an anthology of monologues from different perspectives that build to form a picture of mass desperation and loneliness.

The message is not a subtle one and Cartwright pulls no punches in showing the bleakness of his characters’ lives, but his work retains a powerful force that if nothing else, reminds you still how rarely true working-class lives are depicted on stage. There’s not much time to spend with each character and how deeply you connect with the individual tale does vary depending on the subject and skill of the actor, but John Tiffany’s production does leave you with a wider sense of separate lives all struggling against the same sense of confinement and limitation.

Interestingly, Cartwright’s work also seems to fit into the wider representations of northern lives that use many of the same tropes and experiences, a sense of consistency with past and future that suggests a semi-unchanging pattern of life. Valerie’s monologue in Act Two is a painful examination of a woman at her wit’s end, struggling to keep her family above water because her oafish husband wastes their weekly giro on booze. Valerie’s fear and endless fret she realises has turned to hate for her alcoholic spouse who takes everything from his family and gives nothing in return. There are strong parallels here with Sons and Lovers as Mrs Morel experiences the same frustrations with her miner husband who leaves her to struggle while he drinks his evenings away. That same sense of entrapment, loathing her partner but unable to leave, needing to protect the children, links Cartwright and Lawrence so clearly 70 years apart.

And in the example of more recent writers, Cartwright’s work – or at least the same set of experiences – inform the TV creations of Victoria Wood and Jimmy McGovern. Cartwright’s set of ballsy young women out for a drink, a good time and a man for the night come up time and time again in Wood’s sketches, and when the characters in Road head to the chip shop on their way home, you can’t help but think of the Chip Shop song from Wood’s As Seen on TV, the last stopping point before the people desperate to forget, head back to their real lives. And McGovern’s recent dramas utilise the multi-perspective approach that Cartwright introduces in Road in his renowned drama The Street and recently Broken with different narrative voices driving each episode. Cartwright may not be as fashionable as he once was, but he’s part of a chorus of voices all trying to tell us the same thing in the last hundred years.

One of the startling things about John Tiffany’s new interpretation is the influence of more abstract European theatre-makers in the production design. We’re told at the start by our partial narrator / master of ceremonies Scullery (Lemn Sissay) that Road is set somewhere between the town and the slagheap, a purgatorial midpoint between everything and nothing. Chloe Lamford’s set abjures the expected row of houses for a courtyard-like meeting place where characters momentarily cross paths on their way to and from nights out, backed by the bricked-up window arches of a supposedly derelict house.

Interior scenes take place in a small off-centre square that characters drag chairs or ironing boards into, snippets of crushed-up lives in terraced housing. As one scene moves off, the entire square rises into the air revealing a glass box in which a series of rooms are presented throughout the course of the play, each with a different perspective and a shade of working-class life coexisting on the same road.

Microphoned glass boxes are becoming quite the thing; the Young Vic’s Olivier award winning Yerma, which has a brief revival this summer, takes place in one and they  appear regularly in the work of Complicite and collaborators Schaubuhne Berlin, used as a way to distance the audience from individuals speaking, while also making them seem like untouchable historical artefacts kept in pristine boxes commenting on our appropriation and repurposing of history from a living breathing thing to a rose-tinted fiction. So, you see this influence here as Lamford, who has worked with Schaubuhne, comments on this enshrined image of the northern working-classes that the League of Gentlemen mocked so voluble.

Given the slightly chapter-like nature of the play, it’s mix of realist and abstract forms make it a challenging watch, but director John Tiffany has assembled a creative team with considerable experience of working with some of the leading alternative theatre companies. As well as Lamford who has also worked with star director Ivo van Hove’s Toneelgroep Amsterdam, Sound Designer Gareth Fry and Assistant Director Grace Gummer’s have Complicite experience. Tiffany’s own work this year includes the excellent The Glass Menagerie (as well as Harry Potter), which brought a touching emotional truth to Tennessee Williams’s play about fragility, and this combined experience of showing constrained lives, and how external interpretations have shaped our picture of areas of our society, is something that comes through in this production’s attempt to liberate the emotional impact of Cartwright’s characters behind the clichés.

One criticism that can surely be levelled at the play is its lack of deep engagement with any of its characters, and while they all get some time to speak, either in specific talking-heads style monologues, or in conversation with others, it’s true that we only have a surface understanding of each one. But, arguably, Cartwright’s play does this deliberately to form a combined impression, and has much to say to us now about how well we know, or care about our neighbours. How many people on this road know as much about each other as we find out in 10-minute soliloquies; how much do we know about the people who live on our own street?

And the multi-tasking cast give us plenty to think about as they successfully inhabit as series of funny, touching and affecting scenarios. Leading a talented cast is Michelle Fairley first as Brenda the brusquely worn, impoverished single-mother scrounging money from her daughter getting ready for a night out, but best of all as Helen an older woman seducing a young soldier so drunk he can barely stand. Fairley manhandles him to great comic effect, attempting to undress him but falling in her chips, the one-sided conversation all-the-while insisting he’s seducing her, before a punch of reality cuts right through the humour at the end as Fairley conveys the hopeless domestic tragedy of Helen’s life.

Excellent and heart-breaking work too from Mark Hadfield as the former RAF man aching for a past that has long departed. Jerry’s loneliness is palpable as he reminisces about the gentility of decades past and his lost love, as shrieking drunken girls pass his window, which Hadfield seems to feel as physical stabs mocking the emptiness of his current life. Mike Noble is fascinating as Skin-Lad describing the transition from violent past to Buddah-loving peacekeeper, and as well as the Lawrencian Valerie, Liz White brings cheeky appeal to Carol who on the surface is all gobby attitude but with friend Louise (Faye Marsay) longs for something different, longs for escape.

Gareth Fry’s music choices are part of that momentary escape for every character and Road is stuffed with recognisable tunes that underscore the search for meaning and longing in each of the character’s life. Whether it’s the lyrics to Don’t You Want Me Baby sung by the girls going out on the town, the gentle 40s rhythms that pensioner Molly listens to as she does her make-up in the kitchen, Otis Redding soothing the flashy boys when they get home, or the stirring sweep of Swan Lake that erupts from the music box that Scullery steals, music is used to connect to the soul, something alive and still fighting for more, mirroring the poetic rhythm of Cartwright’s writing, and carefully selected to add insight to this show.

Cartwright may not be as fashionable as he once was, but Road leaves you with plenty to think about and the consistent impression of warmth, humanity and so much life amidst the petty tragedies and containment of working-class experience. Whether the League of Gentlemen were right and Cartwright and his ilk have done northern writing a disservice is for you to decide, but it’s telling that modern impressions of the ‘underclass’ are all about violence, hoodies and tower blocks written by people who’ve never lived that way. There is a kind of truth in the work of Cartwright, Lawrence, Wood and others we seem to be losing, the value of letting people tell their own stories, fostering creativity wherever it exists and looking beyond the clichés for all the different kinds of lives that Road reminds us we are far from understanding.

Road is at the Royal Court until 9 September and tickets start at £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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