Can you get away with a timeless, universal staging of Julius Caesar in the ever-dividing world we live in? Nicholas Hytner just did, with his tense, energetic and fast-paced version of Shakespeare’s play at his Bridge Theatre. While it is a missed opportunity not to offer a serious political reading of Julius Caesar for our times the production will win you over and that’s a promise.
For me, the obvious choice of viewing this immersive production was to be a grounding to have kind of Elizabethan theatre experience you may get at Shakespeare’s Globe. Two hours standing is not for everyone but it was worth every ache I felt after the performance ended.
Before the production even starts if you have an immersive ticket you can roam the in-the-round stage for half an hour purchasing drinks and snacks and, more importantly, marketing gadgets celebrating Julius Caesar. In this modern costume production, the framing device is the modern elections: a half-rally, half-concert. There is a band entertaining the audience (us) with covers of various rock anthems and Mark Antony is warming up the crowd around the stage, encouraging us to clap harder. David Morrissey as Antony (one of the best performances of the night) from the start gives a portrayal of the sycophantic political operator who manipulates the public to his leader’s advantage.
From then on the story we know from the play ensues: Julius Caesar is assassinated (or shot to be precise) and subsequently the civil war breaks out in which the followers of Caesar win and his enemies lose. What is special about this staging of Shakespeare’s play then? Hytner really knows how to sell the text and how to modernise it. He has achieved it through clever casting and giving the right lines from the play a chance to be resounding, biting, effective. The takeover of the production by female characters is the one of the most successful I have seen in a modern costume Shakespearean production. Most of the conspirators are women, most notably Cassius (very good Michelle Fairley) who manipulates Brutus into the rebellion against Caesar. Also, Adjoa Andoh deserves a mention for her sarcastic and gutsy turn as Casca. It is her words that resounded really strongly and carried more weight than those of the leading conspirators in their discussion of the impending tyranny of Julius Caesar. Instead of the line from Shakespeare: “so every bondman in his own hand bears the power to cancel his captivity” Casca, who in this production is a black woman rather than a white man, professes that “so every slave in his own hand bears the power to cancel his captivity”. Suddenly the meaning of freedom and the need to fight for it becomes more important, more urgent.
For the fans of Ben Whishaw there is good news: Brutus rarely leaves the stage but his subtle portrayal of the gentle but sly leader of conspirators is overshadowed by the loud, pacy and busy production which suits better larger than life characters such as Antony. In fact, the production design is the production: the constantly moving platforms and ever-changing sets often distract from the superb acting and the serious political message that the play carries. Without revealing too much, if you do get a groundling ticket expect to taste the smoke, smell the sweat and see the violence inches from your person (and duck when they tell you too!).
My final verdict is: despite its lack of contemporary relevance with regards to British politics Hytner created a perfect show which is hard not to love. One thing is for sure: Shakespeare’s text shines in this production thanks to Hytner’s subtle but inspired modernisation.