Review - Julius Caesar starring Ben Whishaw at the Bridge Theatre
Et tu, Nick Hytner? In the last year we've already seen Julius Caesar multiple times, in productions at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre (inaugurating the new regime of artistic director Robert Hastie there), in a temporary space at King's Cross for a transfer of the Donmar's all-female Phyllida Lloyd staging, as part of Ivo van Hove's Dutch Roman Tragedies at the Barbican, and as part of the RSC's recent Rome season, first at Stratford, then again at the Barbican.
This resonant political drama about the overthrow of a despotic ruler and the chaos that ensues seems to be the Shakespeare that speaks more keenly to our times, especially in the light of the rise of the populism that swept Donald Trump to power and the wide swathe of dissent that has followed in his path. And now it is here as the second of Nick Hytner's productions at his new Bridge Theatre, next to Tower Bridge
While van Hove's modern dress, surveillance society production broadcast images of Trump, here he is only alluded to: Caesar sports a baseball cap with his own name upon it. When we enter the theatre, a rough rock concert is being staged that looks like its the warm-up for a political rally; it noisily plays songs like “Eye of the Tiger”.
Soon we are plunged right into the heart of the familiar drama that will unfold here, as a group of concerned senators and citizens plot Caesar's overthrow. (Would that the Senate in America were quite so courageous; though these days they don't have to go so far as assassination - an impeachment would do).
In what has now become a familiar template for Hytner's Shakespearean productions that were such a major part of his tenure at the National, the director has placed the show in the here and now, and given it a thrilling contemporary urgency by immersing the audience at the centre of it. Most impressively, the Bridge has been entirely transformed from the first time we saw it for Young Marx, into a completely in-the-round space, with a massive promenade pit where the action takes place on various rising and descending platforms that are constantly reconfigured around a standing audience, while others watching from balconies surrounding it on three levels.
But while the promenade (standing) tickets will give the most intimate and democratising experience of the show, as if you really are a citizen of Rome, it looked from my seat at the front of the lowest circle like it was quite hard work, with the audience kept on the move a lot. And unlike at the Globe just along the river, where 'groundlings' pay just £5 a ticket, here they're rather more expensive.
The production comes laden with star power: there's serious charisma here to show why this clash of egos and intentions is so inevitable. Ben Whishaw and David Morrissey, as Brutus and Antony respectively, are both superb as men on opposite sides of Caesar, the one bringing him down, the other building up his legacy as he avenges his death. David Calder makes a striking impression as a ruler who needs to be brought down.
There's also powerful work from Michelle Fairley and Adjoa Andoh as Cassius and Casca, usually roles played by men but here making perfect sense as women.
Hytner's triumph is an accessible, thoughtful and involving production.