Remember last year when theatres in America were receiving hate mail for producing shows written by Shakespeare? It was from the backlash of audience reactions to New York Public Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar. Their depiction of Caesar, based on the Roman emperor who was murdered in 44 BCE, looked very similar to the current US president. Those who had voted for Trump, including those who hadn’t seen the show, felt compelled to protest and demand the production be shut down in fear it would encourage the idea of making the play a reality – the assassination of the president and a civil war to brew.
Moving to 2018 in a new theatre in London, Julius Caesar is also set in a contemporary world where politics is run by those who can win over the hearts of the people. It seems quite close to our own Brexit universe and arguably for many eras in history. At the Bridge Theatre, Shakespeare’s thought-provoking work is directed by the theatre’s co-founder Nicholas Hytner and performed by an incredible cast including Ben Whitshaw, David Calder, Michelle Fairley and David Morrissey.
Promotional activity about the show begun at the tail end of 2017 and people were excited. The combination of phenomenal actors performing Shakespeare in a brand new theatre had the West End buzzing. Was it worth all the hype? Certainly. It’s a staging of Shakespeare I’ve never seen done before.
There was a fiasco with critics and reviewers. Some who weren’t invited to the press nights received an email from the theatre’s PR agent, which they shouldn’t have read. The director mentioned on Twitter how the seats the PRs had allocated for the reviewers weren’t sufficient enough, yet, having experienced a viewing myself, I find it hard to believe that any of the seats could be a bad view of the action.
The Bridge Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar is innovative for multiple reasons. Firstly the staging, designed by Bunny Christie, is set in a round and the audience can buy standing promenade tickets. That is to say that they can move quietly around the stage as the play is happening in front of them. Ushers direct them to move to certain areas, which were normally stall seats, for particular scenes. Secondly, the stage adapts and changes without an interval break. It’s two hours straight of electrifying and immersive theatre. Platforms come out of the floor to create a new space for the actors right in front of the audiences’ eyes. Thirdly, the audience can participate. They can clap their hands and sing along to a live band performing songs such as Seven National Army and We’re not Gonna Take it. Not just that, they can take part as members of the rebellion in the crowd, which includes the banners and shouting – the works.
David Calder is our ‘North Star’ who addresses himself in third person as Julius Caesar. His portrayal of the historical emperor puts him in the league of an opposition leader with campaign managers and supporters waving the flag for him. Calder’s Caesar isn’t the would-be tyrant Brutus is afraid of, but a powerful figure wronged by his long-term friends and shot to death. Calder encourages you to pity Caesar. You almost want to get out of your chair and shout ‘they are going to kill you!’
Ben Whitshaw’s Brutus seems academic and close to theory rather than pragmatism, which is the result of Brutus’s downfall. Whitshaw does a marvellous job of exhibiting Brutus’s uncertainty and confusion once motivated and manipulated to plot against Caesar and overthrow his empire. He quotes great lines including we are ‘sacrificers, but not butchers.’
Michelle Fairley deserves credit for her astonishing representation of the sly exploiter Cassius who urges Brutus to conspire against Caesar. The role was originally written for a male, but we’ve moved ahead with gender equality since Shakespeare’s time. (Not as far as I would like, though.) Fairley does a masterful job with provocative and contemplative lines including, ‘men at some time are masters of their fates. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.’
And David Morrissey’s two-fold charismatic Antony is intriguing too. Morrissey presents a bold scene addressing the people at Caesar’s funeral speaking kind words of Caesar and the conspirators behind the emperor’s assassination. Yet, within a few minutes he changes his tune and it immediately becomes clear that he feels betrayed, and that the people should turn against those who murdered their ruler. This is the crux of the production, which shapes the notion that we, as citizens of society, must be aware of these historical parallels with our own political landscape. It brings home the debate on alternative facts and politicians making people believe what they want to believe seem real.
The final scenes are cleverly coordinated by the ushers, stage supervisors and managers. They have their work cut out for them as they do a tremendous job keeping the momentum of a live war zone going, at the promenade level. It gets loud and there’s plenty of gun shots, so be prepared to cover your ears. Throughout the show, I observed the ‘plebeians’ (as quoted by Shakespeare) as they watched what was going on and were told to move quickly somewhere else. It seems as if the promenade audience enjoyed that interaction and ability to feel part of a performance. This is what theatre is about. For those who don’t usually see the Bard’s plays, this has the power to convert and impress Shakespeare newbies.
Julius Caesar is showing until 15th April with plenty of availability.
You can get day tickets for as low as £15, and promenade standing tickets for £25. Click here to purchase your tickets today.
(I purchased my ticket.)