Julius Caesar, the most famous ancient Roman of all time, is a man synonymous with power, tyranny and betrayal. His bloody end captures our imagination, and the scene of his death has been immortalised in Shakespeare’s powerful work, exploring his assassination by a group of the ruling elite in their bid to make Rome great again.
The Bridge Theatre‘s promenade staging of director Nicholas Hytner’s ‘Julius Caesar’ propels Shakespeare’s play into the 21st century, a political world we are all too familiar with. An integral part of the production, audiences can choose to sit and look down on the reconfigured auditorium, or stand and become part of the mob that await Caesar’s triumphant return to Rome, the “petty men” to walk under his mighty legs. A play concerned with populism, republicanism, and the cult of the leader, Hytner’s visceral production bursts with a timely political relevance, seamlessly fusing our world with the politics of this ancient civilisation, begging the question: ‘Shall Rome stand under one man’s awe?”.
The audience are welcomed into the arena by a rock band playing ‘Seven Nation Army’ and Twisted Sister’s ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’, the equivalent of a modern-day, pro-Caesar rally. Empowered, the audience are whipped into a frenzy, encouraged to chant Caesar’s name as we await his arrival, united by the knowledge that “every bondman in his own hand bears the power to cancel his captivity”. As the play develops, audiences are thrust around the arena by inconspicuous crew members, avoiding the rising platforms upon which the politics will unfold. Having removed the seats in the stalls, the production confidently demonstrates the spatial flexibility of the Bridge Theatre.
Bruno Poet’s lighting design and Paul Arditti’s sound prove key elements of Hytner’s production, reflecting the turmoil to arise post-assassination, the atmosphere frequently verging into the anarchic. Mimicking apocalyptic weather and warfare, the production’s impressive battle scene literally cleaves the audience in two, platforms and barbed wire rising to create a gulf that pits Roman against Roman, audience against audience, as public opinion is forcibly divided once more, our loyalties torn.
Like Shakespeare, Hytner resists categorizing any one of his characters as a ‘hero’ or ‘villain’, emphasising all equally, focus instead on the general nature of human actions and reactions. Each member of the cast offers an insightful, detailed performance, drawing on the emotions, strengths and flaws of Shakespeare’s original characters.
A man who “doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus”, David Calder’s populist Caesar is the perfect embodiment of Shakespeare’s self-confident tyrant. However, during the assassination scene, faced with betrayal by one of his dearest friends, Calder evokes sympathy from the audience, our hearts thumping as Brutus’ gun is trained on him for what seems an eternity, the mounting tension unbearable. Far from rejoicing, we mourn his death as a citizen of this new Rome, gathering around his corpse to pass around his bloodied jacket. His “high-sighted tyranny” and “abuse of greatness” was paid for with his life.
“A man who sits high in all the people’s hearts”, Brutus is depicted by Ben Whishaw as the archetypal intellectual, concerned more with theory than with practice. Forever poring over political volumes, he stoops to sign one of the character’s own books held up to him by a fan. His speech following the assassination of Caesar is a well-constructed argument that relies heavily on reason and fact, as he logically defends the actions of himself and his fellows conspirators. Expertly portraying the inner struggle of the character as he contemplates with all seriousness the task at hand, Whishaw’s Brutus is torn between his love of Caesar, and his greater love of Rome, and his sincere remorse after Caesar’s death endears the audience to the “noblest Roman of them all”, who acted solely for the “common good”.
“A limb of Caesar”, David Morrissey cuts a striking figure as the charismatic Mark Antony, first appearing in a tracksuit and trainers as he vigorously rallies support, playing to the crowd. A masterpiece in emotionally charged rhetoric, Morrissey’s funeral oration is particularly notable; he disarms us with his eloquent speech following Caesar’s assassination, comforting us as we share in his grief. The opposite of Whishaw’s pensive Brutus, Morrissey flatters the crowd with his storytelling, manipulating public opinion as we fall prey to his words, reminding us of the good Caesar did for Rome. A skilled wordsmith, he uses false modesty to undermine his ability as a public speaker, and his implied sarcasm incites his men to riot, as they vent their rage towards the people who murdered the man they followed with unquestionable loyalty. A demagogue who tells the people what they want to hear, Morrissey’s Antony will say anything to gain public support, making promises he will instantly renege. (Sound familiar?).
The driving force behind the plot to kill Caesar, Michelle Fairley’s female Cassius is particularly powerful. An astute, clear-eyed pragmatist concerned with the practicalities of their “most bloody, fiery and most terrible” task, she determines to bring about positive change. Alongside Adjoa Andoh’s sassy female Casca, the actors shine in these traditionally male roles that are so important to the development of plot. Blinded to general public opinion, convinced they are working for the common good, these conspirators get rid of the tyrant before he can abuse his power any further. Such arrogance proves to be their undoing.
Lasting just two hours and without an interval, Hytner’s abridged ‘Julius Caesar’ hurtles along at a startling pace, with all the intensity of modern-day political cataclysms. A politically urgent production with an acute immediacy, this contemporary and accessible staging reverberates with today’s audiences, holding a mirror to our own age, a possible forewarning of future events.
After Caesar’s death, it is clear his murderers have no plan regarding what comes next, and panic ensues as civil war erupts, revealing a nation “so full of faults”. Ironically, Caesar’s assassination only served to strengthen that which it set out to destroy, as absolute power fell to his young nephew Octavius – “a worse come in his place” – the tyrant simply replaced by one more ruthless. People continue to be ruled by one dictator after another.
An architect of the modern world, Julius Caesar remains part of our everyday language. Easy enough to kill the man, the spirit of Caesar can be found in the leaders and politicians of today, who use tactics and methods first perfected by him two thousand years ago. Subverting people’s ideals of freedom and democracy, such leaders use their own methods to create their own rule. In many ways, Caesar remains ‘dictator in perpetuum’ – dictator forever.
“Caesar, thou art mighty yet!”.