Julius Caesar tells the story of the plot to assassinate one of Rome’s most infamous dictators, and the subsequent anarchy that ensues as the Senate splits into warring factions. Nicholas Hytner’s immersive staging of this classic political thriller gives us a production that feels vibrant and modern, and grips the audience’s attention from the very beginning.
The play opens with an immensely energetic rally in support of Caesar: a pounding rock anthem is played on electric guitars, and a passionate mob surrounds the stage, waving posters and chanting the name of their political hero. Staged as a promenade (although seated tickets are also an option), this crowd is made up of audience members as well as actors – a technique which, I imagine, would allow the audience to feel much more complicit in the action, and which made me wish I could have experienced this production in person. It is not long before we see the great man himself – donning a leather jacket over his shirt and tie along with a familiar-looking red baseball cap, David Calder swaggers through the crowd as Caesar, the picture of bombastic charisma. Yet, once he is seated upon his throne in the senate, this façade falls away to reveal a cold-hearted and dangerous despot posing a serious threat to Roman democracy.
We can easily sympathise, then, with the band of conspirators led by Cassius (Michelle Fairley) and Brutus (Ben Whishaw) in their wish to overthrow Caesar. But Fairley and Whishaw prove to us that neither of these characters would be a preferable alternative. Despite her political proactiveness, Fairley’s scheming Cassius appears to be motivated more by her desire to receive appropriate credit for her role in Rome’s previous glories than by the needs of her countrymen. Whishaw, meanwhile, portrays a quiet, bookish Brutus. For all his hatred of autocracy, he behaves in his own circles just like the dictator he is trying to dethrone, refusing to listen to the much more pragmatic ideas of his fellow plotters, such as Cassius and Casca (Adjoa Andoh). By making these characters female, Hytner also underlines an important point about the position of women in traditionally male-dominated spheres like politics. When he asks for Cassius’s opinion on their battle tactics, for example, Brutus brushes her views aside and answers that “good reasons must, of force, give place to better” before expounding his own argument. Whishaw’s condescendingly slow speech and somewhat excessive use of gesture in this moment successfully lay bare how much harder women have to fight to make their voices heard in environments such as these.
David Morrissey must also be applauded for his portrayal of Mark Antony. From his first entrance, following Caesar through the crowd like a lost puppy, to his ostensibly genuine grief following the dramatic shooting of Caesar (replacing the stabbing from the original text), it is easy for the audience to believe him when he vows to avenge his friend’s death. Yet, his delivery of the notorious “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech reveals a master manipulator: he is able to expertly steer the crowd’s sympathies away from Brutus, and he has no qualms about using Caesar’s will to garner public support.
The clarity with which Bunny Christie’s set design, coupled with Bruno Poet’s lighting and Christina Cunningham’s costumes, depicts the deterioration of events after the assassination is commendable. Book-filled office spaces give way to dystopian warzones, and glossy suits are swapped for ragged camouflage as Rome descends into chaos. The use of platforms of constantly fluctuating heights is also visually exciting. As well as being logistically useful for audience members with standing tickets, these contribute to the continuous sense of movement, which is an effective reflection of the political landscape of the piece.
Overall, Hytner’s Caesar is a thrilling ride. Evocative and necessary, the piece shows us that violence only leads to more violence, and that, in politics, there is very often no good option. The Bridge Theatre had only been open for a year before this production, but the lively staging and powerhouse of a cast have doubtlessly put the venue on the map.