Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Theatre Review: Julius Caesar

When you go to the theatre as much as I do, it’s sometimes difficult to connect with anything on more than an academic level. Even with stuff I really enjoy, I often find myself sitting in the audience mentally composing the accompanying blogpost. And in a sense that’s fine - I still really enjoy it.

But I do like it when something comes along that really punches me in the gut.

Julius Caesar at The Bridge punches the head, heart and gut simultaneously. Which is a compliment, even if it doesn’t sound like one. It’s a technically faultless production which is also alive and exciting and dangerous and visceral. I’ve never seen Shakespeare that’s so relevant with only the barest amount of effort to make it so. I loved this show.

A controversial (apparently) opinion to start with: Julius Caesar is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. Yes, the final battle scenes can sag a bit but I love the complex, political build up to them. The Brutus vs Mark Antony eulogy-off alone is enough to make me applaud like a seal. It is unarguably the most relevant play for the omnishambles that is politics/the world at the moment too; just sit and read the aforementioned eulogising and think about the Brexit campaign or any of Caesar’s lengthy pronunciations of his own greatness and think about Donald Trump if you’re in any doubt of that.

One of the joys of this production is that it feels so achingly relevant without ever labouring the contemporary political parallels. Yes there are bright red baseball caps and a Caesar with an eerily familiar swagger but the baseball caps do not say ‘Make Rome Great Again’ and the sublime David Calder is certainly not doing any kind of Trump impression. There are so many contemporary references that can be drawn from this play and this production but director and General Hero Nick Hytner allows the audience to make those references for themselves. Essentially, he sits back and lets the text, and the cast, do the talking. It’s a laissez faire approach which totally pays off. Though I do think they missed a trick by including Seven Nation Army in the show’s brilliantly wild live musical opening and not having anyone start an ‘Oh Julius Caesar’ chant.

One of the most talked-about aspects of this production so far has been the fact that it’s staged in promenade. The decision to go this way, with the audience-mob becoming a character in its own right, is so ballsy on Hytner’s part and a lesser director would surely have struggled. Hytner and his team do not. Like, at all. It helps that he has the amazing Bunny Christie as his designer. Her astonishing set almost deserves an acting credit all of its own it moves around so much and is so much part of the action. It’s also a great example of the way this production plays to both head and gut: my head would like you to know that, technically, this set is baffling in its complexity and effectiveness (book a seat high up in the circle to appreciate it in all its glory - don’t feel you have to stand to enjoy this show because you really don’t), my gut on the other hand is just blown away at how beautiful it is, even if that beauty is sometimes extremely bleak. It’s a design that deserves all of the awards and if it doesn’t get them I will be very cross indeed. The use of music - both live and soundtrack - is so effective throughout too, as is the lighting design. The latter really comes into its own during the battle scenes whilst the former is at its best during the aforementioned opening musical segment.

It almost goes without saying in a show directed by Nick Hytner these days, but the cast is also utterly superb. There are some big names here and they are all on top form. I’ve mentioned David Calder, veteran of, like, everything, already and he is an excellent Caesar. There was a great video interview with him as part of the show’s marketing campaign where he talked about being “a Caesar worth killing” which I struggled to understand a bit until seeing his performance. He is much more than the bit of a dick that Caesar can be in this play: he is charismatic, he is nasty and he is dangerous. Ben Whishaw’s Brutus is acutely well observed as a paradigm of liberal elite loserdom, almost always visually separated from everyone else and too concerned with signing copies of his book on political theory to notice that all of his decisions are terrible. As a gender swapped Cassius (a great decision - it makes the play feel even more contemporary to have the character who everyone seems to deride most of all be a clever, ambitious woman, sadly), Michelle Fairley is spectacular; far more principled and clever than Brutus and just a better human being to boot. In some of the smaller roles, Adjoa Andoh is the sassy Casca of my dreams (and so funny) and, in many and varied parts, Abraham Popoola is exceptional, dripping with charisma and cajones, which sounds gross but you know what I mean. He’s surely one to watch in the future. A shout out too to the incredible team of auditorium staff shepherding the audience and the set around, in what must surely be one of the most stressful and difficult jobs in British theatre.

It’s David Morrissey that steals the show for me though - as you can tell by the fact he’s getting his own paragraph. Praise by grammar. His Mark Antony is a proper rockstar who I would legit follow into any battle. He sets out Antony’s stall early and mutely, running through the crowd wearing a tracksuit with his name on the back during the musical opening and jumping on the stage with the cast-member band. Arriving late and hungover for Caesar’s fateful trip to the Senate, getting a huge laugh from the crowd for his ‘sorry/not sorry’ face in the process, this is the sort of Antony who would definitely have been the most popular guy at school. As soon as Caesar is good and murdered though, Morrissey transforms him into the most consummate - and threatening - populist politician. His ‘friends, Romans, countrymen’ is exceptional, a real Moment, and a feat of political manoeuvring - figuratively and literally, given the staging. The speed of the switch of frightening and the nasty side he allows to shine through is great. Of course the mob love Antony, why would they not? To quote another of David Morrissey’s current crop of semi-fictionalised Roman leaders: he is Rome, and where he walks is Rome. It’s a completely magnetic performance full of energy, malice and charm. And just oh so exciting to watch.

Julius Caesar is the sort of theatre that makes me remember why I love theatre. It speaks to the head in its technical brilliance; it speaks to the heart and the gut in its sense of life, danger and real, blood pumping excitement. Whether you choose to be part of the mob or sit at a safe distance and observe - or, as I intend to do, see it twice and do both - this is just a stunningly well done production. A depressing cautionary tale about the state of our world at the moment that’s rendered shatteringly compelling by this gem of a show.

Julius Caesar is at The Bridge until 15th April.

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