Julius Caesar review – ‘two hours of pounding drama’

Nicholas Hytner's adaptation is makes you rethink the iconic tragedy

Ben Whishaw (Brutus) - Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre - Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

While one is rarely surprised to witness a Shakespearean production opened with music of some sort, it is fair to say that you might not expect the first note to be played on a heavy, distorted bass guitar, launching hungrily into a medley of Katy Perry and Survivor before a frantic and building rendition of the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army, designed, one feels, to build an air of playful confrontation and an almost mischievous prescience of events to come.

In a new production of Julius Caesar at the Bridge theatre director Nicholas Hytner amplifies the electrifying effect of these opening numbers with clever staging – the venue still very much on debut – stripping out the vast majority of the stalls to create a Globe-esqe promenade area which forces the audience within to adopt many different guises en masse as the production proceeds.

As Caesar, David Calder is almost more played by the lines than the opposite. He floats through scenes, delivering with a sadly transient effect, perhaps desired however, as it means that other aspects of the production can combine to support various opinions that Hytner has produced a fast-paced, pseudo-subtle two hour allegory of Trump’s America, complete with slogan-plastered baseball caps (onsale in the pit, £4) and rational scepticism amongst the liberal opposition. This, however, is where the comparison ends and, as the plot unfolds, Calder releases a more personal side of Caeser, building to his demise, where we see him exhausted by utter conviction in his values and a frustration building at how he is received, to the point where one feels empathy for him and is lead to question just who exactly has been cast by Shakespeare as hero and villain at the time of his explosive and immersive demise.

The unexpected questioning of Shakespeare’s plans for his characters is intensified by Ben Whishaw, opposing Calder as a reluctant, innocent and highly self aware Brutus, leading the audience through his every consideration with a soft intensity characterised as a quiet academic. Whishaw’s Brutus is simultaneously the ironically self-righteous voice of reason and filled with self-loathing for his capabilities and beliefs in them. Brutus is thus an emotional rag doll for his co-conspirators in the Roman elite, led confidently Casca (Adjoa Andoh) and Cassius (Michelle Fairley). Adjoa especially gives a flawless performance, assured in her role and bringing together Brutus and Cassius with an unquestionably believable portrayal.

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From the bell in the foyer, and simultaneous beginning of the live music, the cast set a relentless pace, with next to no let up from the action. There is however, a slight sense of a stutter after the death of Caesar when the procession becomes slightly confused and the ever-dynamic scene changes more frequent. It is, indeed Bunny Christie’s staging brainchild that lends so much intensity to the production with the audience constantly shepherded around by marshals, as either security guards, disgruntled Roman soldiers or field nurses, out of the way of the constantly shifting stage – hydraulic platforms that raise and lower, presenting a highly adaptable environment, with the regular rushes of the pit populace in towards the stage preventing any essence of stillness. These scene changes provide a playground for Paul Arditti’s evolving sound design. Volume, particularly in dialogue, proved to be one of the only questions raised against the staging layout, occasionally a struggle to hear from the pit, with three galleries of seats in the round presumably in worse scenarios.

As the staging perhaps became overly frenetic in the second half (two hours, no interval) the soundscape created became a notable and appreciated presence, sheer volume and audacity of effects aiding the immersion of the audience and a booming old-arena tremolo raising silence during Mark Antony’s (David Morrissey) lamentation of Caesar during the funeral. Unlike Brutus, Mark Antony captures the hearts of the Roman citizens, appealing with story and emotion rather than logical justification, a scene Morrissey delivers with gentle gravitas such that cements his foundation for an instrumental and calculated part in Brutus’ psychological downfall as the play moves to resolution.

With this production Hytner has brought together a cast that is perfectly complementary, the unquavering assurance of Fairley, frenetic nervousness of Whishaw and calm, searing performance of Morrissey melting together in this creative new venue to result in two hours of pounding drama that leaves audiences questioning character roles that have been understood for centuries, and curious to see what he can do next. A definite recommendation and, for a very minor sacrifice in comfort, definitely worth taking the promenade view for obligatory and revelatory inclusion in the troubles.