12 April 2018
The Bridge Theatre
reviewed by Adam McCormack
Star rating: ****
Putting Shakespeare into a modern environment doesn’t always work. The National’s recent As You Like It with its “Wolf of Wall Street” approach and the woeful current Macbeth that is set in an overly bleak dystopian future spring to mind. However, from the outset, when Caesar and his army return to Rome victorious to be met by a crowd whipped up into a frenzy by a track-suited Mark Antony and a grunge rock band (playing “Eye of the Tiger” and “Seven Nation Army”) Nicholas Hytner’s new production at the Bridge Theatre works perfectly. Having Caesar portrayed by a somewhat rotund older man, wearing a labelled baseball cap and flyer’s jacket over his suit starts a Trump parallel that may not be subtle but is remarkably compelling.
Other liberties taken are equally acceptable. Michelle Fairley plays Cassius and, while she does not use feminine charm to gain Brutus’s complicity in Caesar’s undoing, the interaction works as it should. The plotters end Caesar’s life with guns rather than knives but as his blood soaked jacket is passed among the crowd to examine the rents made this still fits with the narrative. This brings us to the true brilliance of this production – the staging. Set in the round, with the whole of the stalls given over to standing, this allows a large section of the audience to be a part of the action – they are the citizens greeting Caesar, mourning Caesar and have the civil war that follows his demise happen around them. For this to work, a shape-shifting environment has been carefully planned and is executed with great timing. Hytner’s dream for the Bridge was to have a theatre that could adapt to the production rather than being restricted by the surroundings of the old Victorian theatres in Shaftesbury Avenue, and this play is his dream made reality.
This brave and innovative approach would not work without performances to match. David Calder is suitably calculating as Caesar, particularly in his faux rejections of the crown, Ben Wishaw is a studious model of angst as Brutus and David Morrissey displays the drive and determination of Mark Antony as a warrior with ambition. The great Shakespearean lines come thick and fast in Julius Caesar and getting their delivery right is essential – Morrissey’s funeral oration (“We come to bury Caesar”) and Brutus’s fatal push for battle (“There is a tide in the affairs of men’) are executed with the skill that you would expect from such acting talent.
It is not easy to get a ticket, and the run is coming to an end, but to experience Shakespeare at its best in London’s newest and most innovative larger theatre, try to get along to the Bridge before the 15th April.