Julius Caesar

Posted by Laurence Green

Nicholas Hytner's Julius Caesar is an ambitious, powerful production of a play that holds a mirror up to our own age, offering a cautionary take on the dangers of violent regime change, writes Laurence Green.

Julius Caesar

It is over 400 years old but couldn't be more timely with its explosive mix of passion, politics and betrayal. Now the fourth staging within a year of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar has opened at the Bridge Theatre in Nicholas Hytner's modern dress, promenade production that despite a shaky start, turns out to be viscerally exciting and intellectually subtle.

The action begins with a pounding rock concert, stage as part of a pro-Caesar rally: a reminder that even putative dictators can be populists and it is not long before the wheels of the plot are set in motion and conspiracy and murder are in the air. David Calder presents Caesar as a charismatic crowd pleaser, whose first instinct is to hurl his baseball cap into the audience. Only gradually do we discover this figure to be a dangerous autocrat, enthroned in a scarlet dais in the capitol.

Hytner's approach brings into sharp focus the divisions among the conspirators. Ben Wishaw is particularly impressive as Brutus, initially bookish and mild-mannered before morphing into a determined if tormented assassin. It is a memorable portrait of the ineffectual liberal, confused in his reasoning and mired in impossible moral dilemmas over action and inaction. David Morrissey excels as Marc Anthony, the perfect embodiment of the bumptious opportunist who will promise anything to get public support. When Morrissey launches into the deathless "Friends, Romans, countrymen speech, he's utterly convincing - a rugged impassioned man who knows exactly how to handle a crowd. Then, having used Caesar's will as a vote-catcher, he instantly reneges on his campaign promises.

Michelle Fairley is not the first female Cassius but she brings the right intensity, passion and political pragmatism to the role.

Hytner, while mining the text for modern parallels, makes the play seem politically urgent. Lots of seats have been ripped out from the theatre's new auditorium with the result that a large number of people stand around the stage an excitable mob manipulated by a team of stagehands, cheering embodiments of the dangers of populism. Designer Bunny Christie has created ramps and platforms that rise from the floor to elevate the actors. There is a general sense of anarchy to the post-assassination turmoil, and Kate Waters as the fight director and Bruno Poet and Paul Ardithi as the lighting and sound designers respectively turn the ensuing civil war into a shattering picture of horror.

This then is an ambitious, powerful production of a play that holds a mirror up to our own age, offering a cautionary take on the dangers of violent regime change.

Julius Caesar

Plays at The Bridge Theatre until Saturday 5 April 2018.

Box office: 0843 208 1846

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