Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre - NT Live
Julius Caesar - NT Live
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Cast: David Calder, David Morrissey, Ben Whishaw, Michelle Fairley, Adjoa Andoh, Wendy Kweh, Leaphia Darko, Leila Farzad
The Bridge Theatre London
22 March 2018
The first play at the new Bridge Theatre in London, Young Marx, also broadcast live to cinemas as part of the NT Live series, wasn't a particularly auspicious (or funny) piece but it did show the promise of a theatre that could be adapted to new technology in terms of theatre presentation and set design, as well as one that could work well for an audience watching on screens in far-flung places away from London. That promise is fully borne out in Nicholas Hytner's new production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, where not only is the theatre totally reconfigured to best meet the intentions of the play, but it also plays out wonderfully on the screen.
The principal feature or unique initiative for this production is to make the audience part of the whole production, using them as the "rabblement" of ordinary Roman citizens, hooting and clapping their chopped hands, who are such a vital part in the drama that plays out in front of their eyes. That much has been done any number of times, not least at Sam Wanamaker's reconstructed Globe Theatre in Southwark, and not just for Julius Caesar or something like Titus Andronicus but for many of Shakespeare's plays where engagement with the audience has successfully been shown to play a crucial part in the energy and give-and-take of the plays. Hytner's new production at the nearby newly constructed Bridge Theatre however also works with the intention of making Julius Caesar contemporary, away from the togas and pillars of ancient Rome, which is crucial to the edgy intent of the piece.
Hytner uses a number of effective ways to get that across and you're aware of the completely different impact this to the play right from the outset. The conscripted audience, standing in the opened-up round of the stalls with its seats removed and platforms added, are warmed up before the play starts by a street band at what appears to be a political rally. Oasis's "Rock n'Roll Star" is hammered out, "Eye of the Tiger" and "Seven Nation Army" all set the scene, Mark Anthony also taking to the stage to whip up the fervour, while extras wave banners and t-shirts are emblazoned with Caesar's campaign slogan "Do this!" (from Anthony's line "When Caesar says "Do this," it is performed"), his version of "Make Rome great again!".
It's perhaps this idea of making Julius Caesar contemporary that is the more important factor in The Bridge production than the concept of audience participation, which since they aren't coached actually turns out to be minimal and mainly for set decoration purposes. Julius Caesar doesn't need to be in a contemporary setting for its insights and continued relevance into the art of electioneering, speech making and controlling the mood of the public, as well as how it can be used for a means of grabbing the reins of power. When the recent RSC production played at Stratford-upon-Avon, it wasn't hard to imagine Antony's claims of Caesar's wealth being restored to the people being emblazoned on a battle bus even as it was set in ancient Rome. Hytner's production comes at a time when Cambridge Analytica are in the news for exerting influence over election results, so Shakespeare's observations remain as true now as they were in his own time, and indeed Roman times.
The contemporary setting serves to make this more immediate of course, but it doesn't come at the cost of neglecting the other qualities of the work. The question of auguries and fate playing a hand might seem like superstition that has no place in a modern society, but like Shakespeare's always relevant insights into human nature, there is also a recognition of the cyclical nature of fate and history providing answers. Somehow that aspect of the play of all things coming to an end, arose out of the setting for me. Even as he rejects the auguries, portents and dreams about the Ides of March, Caesar recognises that "It seems to me most strange that men should fear, seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come." All things will end, and even as we live through troubled and uncertain times, they too will pass and the world will go on.
As Cassius and Brutus and the other conspirators soon find out too, having just overthrown what they believe to be the tyranny or danger of Caesar's ambition. What they belatedly come to realise is that they haven't looked towards their own ends and haven't taken the necessary care to plan a strategy to gauge and sway the mood of the public and are therefore not in control of where this might lead them (there must be some contemporary UK political situation that matches that, I'm sure it will come to me...). For Brutus, his short-sightedness is evident in his "O, that a man might know, the end of this day's business ere it come! But it sufficeth that the day will end, and then the end is known", the latter a line that you could quite credibly attribute to David Davis, and for Cassius, aware that he is going to die on his birthday "This day I breathed first: time is come round, and where I did begin, there shall I end", it's just the inevitable result of a path that is set out on from the beginning. Everything comes to an end and history will continues on its own course.
Dramatically, this Julius Caesar comes together well, the critical points are all hit and the relevance of it all remains as apparent as it ever does, but the actual craft of the production design, the performances and indeed the direction for the cinema screen also have to be taken into account for its success. The novelty of the audience standing close to the action falls into the background, the shouts of anger, uprising and violence taken up later by professional extras and sound effects, but the presence of the crowd in this crucible of fire still registers and, as violence erupts out of the midst of it when the poet Cinna is beaten by the mob in a case of mistaken identity, it reminds you constantly how important the rabblement are as a protagonist and driving force in the play.
The casting, performances and direction (I don't think they can be easily separated) are excellent. Brutus, for example, rather than just being played as an inarticulate no-nonsense soldier is brilliantly played by Ben Whishaw as a kind of revolutionary intellectual. His failings are not then a brutish inability to be eloquent enough to sway the mood of the general public as much as over-estimating their intelligence and their capability to make rational judgements based on facts and evidence rather than pandering to their fears and nationalistic pride as Mark Antony could be said to have done. (Did someone say Brexit?). The same kind of attention to detail is paid to each of the characters and performances, each one having distinct personality, appearances and behaviours, but indeed the fact that they aren't all wearing near-identical togas does help distinguish individuals better too.
Most effectively of all however is the astonishing fluidity of Bunny Christie's production design of constantly changing, moving and rising platforms that permits the whole play to be energised by compression into a two-hour performance without interval. And energised it most certainly is, the theatre descending into a war zone, with explosions, sirens, smoke, strobing lights and even jeeps appearing in the midst of it all as the "dogs of war" are let slip. To be there in the Bridge Theatre would be quite an immersive experience, but it has to be said that it was no less effective in the cinema. All of which of course is the intention of Nicholas Hytner and the Bridge Theatre, to make theatre vital, visceral and interactive, engaging with a much wider audience in the theatre and outside of it. Not only does Julius Caesar show what the theatre is capable of, the theatre shows exactly what Julius Caesar is capable of too.