Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Theatre review: Julius Caesar (Bridge Theatre)

Nicholas Hytner’s Bridge Theatre is intended to predominantly showcase new writing, but in only his second production there Hytner can’t resist going back to Shakespeare. This is in part because the opening season is also meant to show off the flexibility of the auditorium, and Julius Caesar is a play that lends itself to promenade staging, or in this case in-the-round staging with a section of the audience in promenade (of sorts.) Making the audience part of the action fills in the play’s reliance on crowds – whether as baying mobs, horrified onlookers, armies or, most crucially, the general populace of Rome in whose name the central characters act. Hytner’s production is modern dress, and David Calder’s Julius Caesar certainly has a visual nod to one current political figure as he shuffles onto the stage wearing a red baseball cap and revelling in the attention as much as anything.

Trump comes to mind in the way Caesar’s manipulated later as well – when they need to convince him to leave the house, the faction send Decius Brutus (Leila Farzad) to use a combination of flirting and baby-talk to play him into their hands.

But for the most part the modern parallels are left vague enough for the audience to make their own minds up about. Ben Whishaw’s Brutus is an academic, slightly socially awkward but popular – in a nice gag he’s introduced signing a copy of his book. Cassius (Michelle Fairley) sees him as a crucial ally in her plot to topple Caesar; she appeals to his logic and genuine belief that Rome is in danger from its increasingly powerful ruler, as well as using underhand tactics to make him believe there’s popular demand for Brutus to take action. The two actors dominate the production with their characters’ complementary relationship, she an intense and urgent counterpoint to his quiet thoughtfulness.

Bunny Christie’s design uses a number of large platforms that rise out of the central stage on hydraulics as needed; the actors and stage management team help by shepherd the promenading audience away from where the next platform is due to rise up, or out of the way of some of the more sudden and violent actions that happen as actors run through the crowd. The first Julius Caesar I ever saw also used a promenading audience in the middle of an in-the-round staging, although at some point it seemed to run out of things to do with us; Hytner’s production on the other hand is very clear throughout about the crowd’s place in the action, and they’re often actively used: Holding up fliers to support the faction, being made to drop to the ground for safety when shots are fired, and memorably being used to pass a huge flag over the stage; as this is used to hide the appearance of the steps Caesar is assassinated on it’s probably an impressive reveal for the seated audience.

I was among the standing audience in the pit, and it’s probably the best way to experience the production, although I’m not sure I’d strictly describe it as promenading – for the most part you’re standing in one place looking up so it’s similar to being a Globe groundling (but for a lot more than a fiver.) For the sake of my back I would have preferred to be walking around more – if, like me, standing still for too long becomes a problem it may be worth going for a seat instead. On the plus side the fact that the focus moves around means a new platform to lean on might appear at any minute, on the minus side and by the same token, the one you’re leaning on could also disappear again – at one point I had steps to lean on and by the end had retired to the back of the crowd to lean back against the walls, but I was still in some discomfort by the end and if I hadn’t been able to take the weight off occasionally I’d have really suffered.

Still, there’s no question that the pit tickets put you in the middle of the action, and there’s been a lot of thought put into making that feel like the case. The play opens with celebrations of Caesar’s latest victory so the pre-show features a band (with Abraham Popoola, later playing Trebonius, on lead vocals,) getting the crowd going. “Seven Nation Army” is the most knowingly political reference among the songs they cover, but I did see some people who were surely too young to have been born when Rocky III came out, serving some ‘80s Top of the Pops audience realness to “Eye of the Tiger.” There’s a risk with these things that the audience can get too caught up in the opener and be distracted for the play itself, but Whishaw and Fairley quickly have everyone hanging on their plotting.

In keeping with the populism of Caesar, David Morrissey as his closest lieutenant Mark Antony plays up a blokey image in the play’s most famous speech. There’s always a cynicism in this manipulative speech’s insistence that he’s no orator compared to Brutus; but it seems a particularly ridiculous claim coming from Morrissey’s confident firing up of the crowd, compared to Whishaw’s portrayal of an intellectual putting forward reasonable arguments in the belief they’ll be enough. Antony may be a cunning manipulator but the production makes it clear it’s the unknown quantity Octavius (Kit Young) who’ll get the spoils after the dust settles. Elsewhere in the cast Adjoa Andoh relishes Casca’s sniffy contempt for all, and Fred Fergus suggests some of the character arc of Brutus’ sleepy servant Lucius despite some of his scenes having been cut.

In fact cuts are one of the secrets of the production’s success, and something I’m always in favour of in a play I’ve never warmed to: Paradoxically, it’s the behind-the-scenes plotting that’s interesting and the later action scenes that are terminally dull, and cutting it to play without an interval avoids a second half full of the latter, the scenes of the conspirators’ fall benefiting from the pace built up in their rise. Playing it straight through is one of the reasons Gregory Doran’s 2012 production worked for me, and while this isn’t perhaps quite as revelatory a production as that one it’s probably the one that’s best captured the play’s potential for excitement and danger. This is why I keep going back to Shakespeare plays I know I don’t like – in the right hands they can have something fresh to deliver.

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare is booking until the 15th of April at the Bridge Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

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