Review by Carol Rocamora – –
Have you ever witnessed a theatrical performance so electrifying and energizing that you spring to your feet with excitement?
Join (virtually) the hundreds of audience members, who stood for the entire two hours of Nicholas Hytner’s sensational 2018 production of Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre in London. It’s streaming now on National Theatre at Home, and you’ll be standing and shouting in front of your computer screen along with everyone else in that theatre.
Hytner gutted the entire Bridge theatre for his gut-wrenching, gut-punching production, staged in so-called “promenade” style. Audience members had two choices – to take a seat in the round on the rim of the action, or to become part of it and join the “Roman throng” to greet Caesar’s triumphant return from battle and all the high drama that follows.
Bunny Christie’s amazing design features platforms that rise and fall, upon which a brilliant ensemble plays out Shakespeare’s tragedy of politics and populism. Actors in military or street dress weave their way through the throng of audience members to mount these platforms and perform the succession of scenes. Audience members are called upon to carry placards, to cheer along with the cast, and other duties befitting of the Roman mob.
Hytner’s streamlining of Shakespeare’s text into a compact two hours (no intermission) heightens the urgency of the story. His powerful, populist rendering opens with a gritty rock band at the center of the theatre, pounding out a deafening refrain of “We’re not going to take it anymore”! Enter Julius Caesar (an impetuous, imperious David Calder) wearing a red Trump-style baseball cap, and we’re plunged headlong into the plot of political intrigue. Ben Whishaw (London’s starry stage and screen actor) offers a scholarly, studious Brutus, worthy of his “noble” description. As Cassius, Michelle Fairley (yes, the casting is gender-blind) sports that “lean and hungry look” very convincingly, as she lures Brutus into the conspiracy. As Casca, another co-conspirator, Adjoa Andoh makes a lesser role memorable with her crafty, subtle delivery. David Morrissey, always commanding, is a moving Mark Antony.
Memorable theatrical moments (there are so many!) in Hytner’s production include the creepy soothsayer who appears among the throng of audience members with his warning of “Beware the Ides of March,” followed by the stormy night before the assassination. There’s the wildly dramatic entrance of Caesar into the senate, escorted by the audience carrying a blood-red canopy. Then comes a shock – the assassination scene itself is performed with gunshots (not stabbings). The play concludes with the deafening battle scene at Philippi, featuring appropriately scary sound effects and lighting by Bruno Poet. (Contemporary costumes are by Christina Cunningham). It’s a stunning, unforgettable theatrical experience, and a vivid example of what theatre theorist Peter Brook calls “total theatre.”
Like Oskar Eustis’s Julius Caesar in the summer of 2017 (Shakespeare in the Park), Hytner’s production focuses on tyranny and the perils of populism – two urgent political themes in our traumatic times. Needless to say, it’s painful to be reminded that “there is a tide in the affairs of men…” – not to mention that “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in ourselves…”
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, directed by Nicholas Hytner, a Bridge Theatre production now streaming on National Theatre at Home (ntathome.com)