Your enjoyment of Julius Caesar at the Bridge may, I suspect, correlate directly with how much you enjoyed being barked at and barged into by sinister looking security guards with earpieces, sometimes guns. If you can make your peace with being shuffled around the floorspace like so many sheep, there is an electrifying atmosphere in the standing crowd that doesn’t dissipate and tips this production from excellent to breathtaking.
For Nicholas Hytner’s new production of Julius Caesar is a promenade performance, so while there are seats in the gallery, at least half of the audience stands in the pit and becomes a multipurpose crowd. We are adoring fans as Caesar himself sweeps through our midst, riotous rally-goers, mourners and, in a very well choreographed scene, witnesses to the murder of Caesar. As the first bullets fly, security screams at us to get down and everyone ducks and the tension ratchets up.
You might think that standing for two hours would be unbearable, but the reality is this cleverly cut production zips past in a dizzying blur of political scheming and then civil war, with barely time to breathe. Bunny Christie’s ingenious set design makes use of rising and falling floor panels to ensure that the action moves around the stage and almost everything is more or less visible.
The action is marvellous. For this is no familiar Julius Caesar – no, with not a toga in sight, Hytner’s production is a Julius Caesar for our times. Before the show starts, hawkers move through the crowd selling red baseball caps, and while David Calder’s Caesar is not an obvious parody, his wild popularity and chilling portrayal does speak to some of the issues around populism and the current political climate. The civil war – again, brilliantly designed by Christie, with excellent sound and lighting by Paul Arditti and Bruno Poet – meanwhile, seems to recall the swift unravelling of countries such as Syria in the wake of the Arab Spring.
It goes without saying that the acting is impeccable, and the direction astute. This is a very accessible Shakespeare, and Hytner has managed to draw out many moments of humour, often in the least expected places. The dynamic between Cassius and Brutus (Michelle Fairley and Ben Whishaw, respectively) is fantastic, particularly in the latter part of the play, and individually they both shine. David Morissey’s Mark Antony is completely compelling. There are no weak links.
In short, it’s nearly February. January is nearly over. What better time to treat yourself to a spot in the crowd of plebeians, within spitting distance of some of England’s finest actors? And if you don’t fancy the ever present threat of having to desperately contort yourself out of the way of Ben Whishaw, you can always take a seat in the gallery. But really, where’s the fun in that?
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