Stefania Ciocia at the Bridge with Julius Caesar

Caesar says “Do this!”: Stefania Ciocia is in her element in the Roman mob at The Bridge Theatre

I decided I wanted to see Nicholas Hytner’s new production of Julius Caesar at The Bridge Theatre the minute I heard about it on Saturday Review back in February, in spite of the fact that – as I can now testify – the reception it was given on the airwaves was more lukewarm than this staging deserves. I knew I’d be in London for a conference at the beginning of April, just in time to catch one of the last few performances of a play which, for self-evident reasons in turbulent political times such as ours, is undergoing a huge revival: last year, the RSC put it on in its traditional Roman setting; the New York Public Theatre, instead, ditched the togas for a controversial, present-day production where the titular character looked unmistakably like Donald Trump.

If I’m honest, the play’s political relevance isn’t what sent me straight to the box office; my motives were various and range from the serious to the more visceral by way of the whimsical. Reason #1 (the serious one): as a keen theatregoer, I was raring to check out this new venture, set up by Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr, a stone’s throw from Tower Bridge. As it turns out, it’s a fabulous place, and I can’t wait to see what else it’s got in store for us. I’ve got my eye on the forthcoming adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton. It’ll be interesting to go back for what promises to be a different proposition – an intimate portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship devised as a one-woman show – from this buzzing, vibrant, loud reinterpretation of Julius Caesar.

Reason #2 (indulge me please): I really wanted to see Ben Whishaw as Brutus. I had never seen him on stage. I wish I could turn back time and catch his Hamlet, the role that launched his career, and – I know I am not alone in this – I have loved him in every film and tv appearance that I’ve seen him in. Even when I can’t actually see him: by far the most memorable movie experience of 2017 for me was Paddington 2, whose ursine protagonist is voiced by Whishaw. The film, my very first encounter with Michael Bond’s creation, has belatedly turned me into an earnest, unashamed fan of the friendly bear from darkest Peru.[1]

Reason #3 (the absolute clincher): I couldn’t resist the call to be part of the Roman mob. Julius Caesar is performed in an ingeniously engineered pit, where spectators who are going for the “immersive” experience (there are also tickets available in the gallery for those who don’t want to mix with the hoi polloi) are cheek-by-jowl with the actors and an integral part of the performance. I don’t care that some purists have pointed out that this arrangement overplays the role of the crowd in the original play. I’ve been spoilt by years of practice as a groundling at the Globe to seek out Shakespearean performances with a modicum of interaction with the audience but, believe me, nothing I’ve experienced in that wonderful Elizabethan space – where a friend of mine, standing right next to me, almost got pulled up onto the stage once – comes close to how much a part of the action I felt at The Bridge. “Immersive” really is the word.

The production exudes tremendous energy from the start. A rock band warms up the audience as they walk in. Incongruous in an ancient setting, though not on this stage, the band offer the pretext for a joke that sets the tone for the evening. “What trade are you?”, one of the musicians (Kit Young) gets asked. The improbable answer (“A cobbler”), though true to the text, is delivered while brandishing an electric guitar. The big laugh that ensues is the first sign that there is a disconnect between the privileged elite and the populace, and that the audience – laughing at the questioner – is decidedly on the side of the mechanicals here. Incidentally, Young reappears as Octavius halfway through the play, and provides the striking visual image at the end of the show, alone in the spotlight, straddling the stage, the powerful emperor-to-be. (“I feel there will a worse one in his place” is the prescient comment of one of the citizens after Caesar’s death though, in fairness, Octavius as Emperor Augustus did alright by the Romans.)

Back to the pre-performance warming-up phase: a big shout-out ought to go too to the stagehands and, throughout the evening, to the bit-part actors too. You expect seasoned thespians not to break character, but even when selling programmes and merchandise (red baseball caps emblazoned with “Caesar”, an obligatory Trumpian reference) a member of the crew remained committed to the ‘let’s get this crowd into the right mood’ vibe. He photobombed us as we were taking a selfie – our own way of showing that we had totally embraced the spirit of the staging: these days, you can’t have a true Roman mob without smartphones, can you?

Although he “can’t see quite as much of Trump in Caesar as the Public Theatre did”, Hytner explained in an interview with the Guardian: “I’ve never before staged a play that has said so much about our present or warned of such a terrible future. It addresses directly the failure of dismayed liberals (count me as one of them) to understand and overcome the appeal of populism.”[2] Indeed the marshalling of the crowd itself is a perfect actualisation of that: throughout the play, we were constantly moved about – briskly bossed around, attentively cared for and sometimes unapologetically shouted at – by Caesar’s bodyguards, by various other characters in turn or simply by the black-cladded stagehands. What better metaphor for the swaying of public opinion?

We were literally and figuratively manipulated: squashed together and then allowed to disperse again as platforms were rising up or coming down on the stage, the action in places at our level, or more often raised five feet from the ground. And in the panic following the shots of Caesar’s assassination, we all obeyed – how could we not? – the shouts of “Get down! Get down!”. I was struck by the small gesture of one of the stagehands, who put his arms around the shoulders of the woman crouching next to me. An assassination had just happened a few feet from us, and the killers were still pointing their guns. You’d take cover and look out for your near-and-dear too, wouldn’t you?

Things got more fraught, and became a real assault to the senses, as the play – and the body count – progressed, until in the final act we were in full civil-war mode: mortar blasts, smoke, machine guns, rubble and casualties everywhere. I must admit that at that point the adrenaline and the sheer curiosity about what other tricks the production would have up its sleeve (a jeep drove in towards the end, apparently, though I couldn’t see it from where I stood) made up for the fact that all the most interesting stuff had already happened. You don’t have to know the play – a smattering of Roman history will suffice – to be aware that the conspirators are doomed, and that they will die one by one in what can feel like a sequence of suicides that’s been a long time coming. That said, call me star-struck, but I did continue to get a kick out of being so close to the action right until the very end. It is a real treat to be able to observe the players’ subtlest movements, to see so clearly their facial expressions, to hear them breathe between their lines.

So, what of the acting itself? The four main roles were all superbly cast, and delivered as expected: with their stage presence alone, Ben Whishaw and David Morrissey made for an utterly convincing contrast between the rarefied, tormented intellectual Brutus and the extrovert bon vivant, and rabble-rousing orator, Mark Antony. Michelle Fairley as Cassius was a revelation, and made the character more sympathetic than he (or, in this case, “she”) is on paper. Unwavering in her beliefs, Cassius is ruthlessly efficient in the pursuit of her goal, until she lets Brutus take the reins of the plot and its aftermath.

Once more, you don’t need to know the play, or Roman history either, to be on Cassius’s side when she counsels Brutus against letting Antony speak at Caesar’s funeral. The gender-blind casting added an extra nuance of meaning at this point: Brutus (and Caesar too for that matter) both condescend to their wives and refuse to take their worries seriously, so seeing a female Cassius’s sensible advice being brushed off by a man who thinks he knows best really made me want to heckle: “Listen to the woman, Brutus!” Later on, there was a more jarring side-effect to having a female Cassius, when the quarrel and reconciliation scene in Act IV ended up having strange undertones, the woman’s declarations of love to Brutus coming too close for my liking to intimating a crush. (Was it just me? Maybe I am projecting.) The other duff note in this gender reversal is the characterisation of Decius Brutus (Leila Farzad) as a seductress. Farzad is game and does a great job with it, but I find this directorial decision rather dubious. Do we really need to sexualise this character? It’s a missed opportunity to show a woman getting her own way by rhetorical powers alone, though it has to be said that generally the gender- and colour-blind casting was an absolute joy.

As for David Calder as Caesar, both the performance and the staging cast him more as an elderly statesman, surrounded by sycophants, than as a dangerous potential dictator. This worked for me since it gave emphasis to how much the incidentals of power – the throne, the security guards, the flags, the cheers on command, all so easy to manufacture – affect our perception of and response to authority. This interpretation of the play focuses on propaganda and goes for it with all its (amplified) might. Speaking of which: I did feel a bit cheated when Antony started his “Friends, Romans, countrymen” oration on the mic. As Shakespearean speeches go, it’s not quite up there with “To be, or not to be”, but only by a whisker. That’s the one moment in the play when I found myself yearning for a more ‘authentic’ Shakespearean experience, and for Morrissey to get the chance to test his acting chops without technological enhancements. But, let’s be clear, that’s my problem, not the productions. Compressed into little more than two hours, without interval, it occasionally paints its canvas in very broad strokes, but so what? It’s still a dazzling, super-charged, terrifically engaging reinterpretation of a topical work: you really can’t ask for more for a 21st-century Shakespeare.

Finally, it might not be the done thing, but let me end with a quick comment on the programme and (erm) the merchandise. The sleek booklet on the production has three really interesting articles: one on the importance of names in the play and Caesar’s “illeism” (his penchant for referring to himself in the third person) by Peter Holland, one on post-truth and populism by Matthew D’Ancona, and one on the historical events themselves and the end of the Roman Republic by the incomparable Mary Beard. While getting my copy after the performance, my eye was caught by another irresistible souvenir. I wouldn’t be seen dead with a bright red “Caesar” baseball cap (no amount of irony can make that look ok) but I thought I ought to pay homage to the genius of the staging by becoming one of those “suckers” (Hytner’s word, not the Bard’s) who fall for Antony’s powers of persuasion.

Reader, I bought the t-shirt. It proclaims “Do this!” (from Antony’s line in act I: “When Caesar says, ‘Do this’, it is performed”). It’ll make for perfect motivational gear at the gym.

The last performance in this run of Julius Caesar was yesterday, 15 April. You can still catch it in selected cinemas as an Encore National Theatre Live.

Stefania Ciocia is Reader in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Canterbury Christ Church University.

[1] I mean it: if you haven’t seen this absolute corker and emotional rollercoaster of a film yet, go and get it now. It’ll make you laugh. It’ll make you cry. It’ll make you want to learn how to make marmalade. It’s a paean to tolerance and kindness, and to the joys of living in a society that welcomes immigrants, and where we can all learn from one another. And it does all that while being riotous fun and not at all po-faced. Believe me, it’s too good a film to leave it to children alone. It’s practically wasted on them.

[2]Nicholas Hytner on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for the Guardian