Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre || An intense and immediate tragedy

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Ben Whishaw, David Calder, Michelle Fairley, and David Morrissey star in Nicholas Hytner’s immersive production of Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre, blending Shakespeare with Scandi noir and updates togas to Trump.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, in this production of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, you will be asked to lend more than just your ear. Hytner, in his second show at the recently opened Bridge Theatre, creates much more than a show, he creates an experience that overwhelms the senses; wind rushes past you, security members ( so often carrying set pieces) elbow through the crowd of 400 standing spectators, and the sounds and smells of gunfire strike you from all around as ash falls from the imagined sky. Partnered with the in-the-round staging and various configurations of the rising platforms which make up the stage, this continually moving production brings to life the ever-changing world of politics and patriotism.

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Hytner’s refreshed take brings about a cinematic edge to the tensions of Brutus and his fellow conspirators; with minimalist set design and a straight 2 hour run time. Whishaw confirms his skill on the stage. He is utterly compelling as the psychologically complex politician, presented here as a typical intellectual, a character so innately linked with his tragic flaw:  naivety. With him musing on “ambition’s ladder” over a biography of Stalin, and books scattered across the platforms configured into his home, it is clear that he has yet to cross from the theoretical to the practical. Over the course of the production. Whishaw’s Brutus is slowly consumed with guilt and uncertainty, shakily running his hands through his hair, until he seems drunk with grief.

Calder’s convincing Caesar portrays and slowly breaks down the façade of the great leader, who is so often distanced from the logo-like name of The Caesar, allowing the audience to fall for his charisma before his true nature appeared. Unlike so many productions of this tragedy, you as the audience member are not entirely sure who to side with because of this, adding a dimension to the work not often considered.  Of course, illusions between him and Trump are made, whether intentional or simply due to our current political climate, however, this Caesar and this production act as a parable to cult-leaders in general: with the pre-show rally, where the audience is welcomed in with the clamour of Seven Nation Armies,  you can’t help but think of Jeremy Corbyn appearing before the crowds of Glastonbury.

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While Whishaw’s Brutus bumbles along with his head in his books, Mark Antony, played with a hardened edge by Morrisey,  acts as his perfect antithesis. Completely embodying his faux-innocence and tactical prowess, his performance as orator persuades even you in the audience. Fairley too, as the sober Cassius, faultlessly displays the manipulative nature of these politically experienced characters. Her harsh looks and encouraging words are given a fresh edge through her performance, adding a new lens through which the play can be examined.

With astounding visuals and unbelievably immersive environments, Hytner brings this play to life, making Shakespeare accessible and fully establishing it in our contemporary society. It is dramatic and urgent, relevant whilst reminding us of its timeless nature, as stated by Cassius herself:

How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!

All photographs © Manuel Harlan
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