The rock concert that kicks off the Bridge Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, directed by Nicholas Hytner, serves as a solid indication that this is not going to be your average night at the theatre. The loud concert, as it turns out, is part of an American-style campaign rally —replete with posters and a vendor selling T shirts bearing the slogan ‘Do This!’— celebrating the return of Caesar (David Calder), who enters in triumph, wearing an ensemble (consisting of a blue shirt, overly long red tie, and red cap) that seems rather reminiscent of a certain world leader’s sartorial trademark. The NT Live presenter needs to raise her voice to make her introductory remarks to camera from the midst of the jostling, cheering crowd, and consequently rather resembles a journalist in the field reporting from some distant locale.
The play is performed in the promenade style, meaning there’s very little separation between players and audience, with the latter group forming part of the citizens’ mob throughout. Sections of the stage are lowered and raised as the action changes, and the audience crowds around to stare upward at the unfolding rebellion led by Cassius (Michelle Fairley) and Brutus (Ben Whishaw).
Fairley’s earnest, openly scheming Cassius is a delight, as is Adjoa Andoh’s clever and palpably dangerous Casca. Whishaw’s Brutus is cerebral and calculating, but also more than capable of devastating physical deeds, and this portrayal, together with Fairley’s and Andoh’s, succeeds in lending the production the distinct air of a slick and sophisticated modern political thriller. As Caesar, Calder exudes just the right blend of strongman bravado and masked cunning to keep his wary rivals —and the audience— on their toes. David Morrissey, perhaps partly owing to his physical stature, imbues Mark Antony with a kind of thuggish power that serves to magnify the character’s already threatening presence. Mark Antony’s blatant attempt at manipulating the populace in his famous funeral speech gives one chills in this age of heightened propaganda efforts, and Morrissey’s delivery is pitch-perfect.
The production’s set design and costume choices are absolutely on target, and contribute significantly to the ‘contemporary thriller’ feeling of the piece. Everything, from the book on Saddam Hussein visible on Brutus’ desk to the battle-scarred wind-breakers that appear once war breaks out, has clearly been carefully chosen and placed to facilitate the telling of this story in the most striking and memorable way possible.
At the end of Julius Caesar, one leaves the cinema with the gnawing feeling that some things never change. What started as a staging set squarely in the present day —what with the Trumpian wardrobe choices and all— very quickly transcends the contemporary sphere and becomes a sort of blueprint for all tales of political scheming and civil war the world over. It’s not unusual to watch a great classic play and wonder at how relevant it all seems despite the centuries that have passed since the piece’s debut —their timeless nature is, after all, one of the reasons these works continue to be performed to eager audiences. It is, however, somewhat rarer to come across a production that deals with a particular play’s contemporary relevance in such a clever, unforced way that the audience never feel overwhelmed by a constant stream of unsubtle clues but instead are allowed to piece the alarming truth together themselves.
Julius Caesar is broadcast as part of the current NT Live season and can be seen at the Fugard Theatre on the 6th of May at 11:00. Tickets are available through Computicket.