This is only the second ever production at London’s new Bridge Theatre and they’ve already started ripping out the seats. In the auditorium, which has been reconfigured around a central pit, the wafts of dry ice and abundance of plastic pint glasses gave me flashbacks to my short-lived career attending gigs in provincial civic centres. That impression was only heightened when a live band struck up “Cigarettes and Alcohol” (the undisputed highlight of Oasis’s 1994 debut album Definitely Maybe). Was this play being staged… in my youth?
Whatever the rationale, I liked it. Entering a theatre too often evokes reverence rather than genuine excitement. The sensation of punkishly putting two fingers up at theatrical convention was only slightly dented by everyone being British, and therefore listening to the band with the kind of polite attention you give to a friend’s holiday photos. If this was “the mob”, it felt like making an early exit to beat the traffic was a stronger possibility than tearing someone limb from limb. Even “Seven Nation Army” failed to stir the hundreds of promenaders, who paid £25 each, to a rousing chorus of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn”.
Still, it was an interesting choice of song, because this production makes Julius Caesar firmly a play about populism, and my greatest fear was that it would fall into liberal piety: tonight, kids, we’re all going to learn that Dictators Are Bad. The director Nicholas Hytner had promised more, summarising the plot thus: “The liberal establishment is trounced by a demagogue who appeals to the gut, and tells the stories the mob wants to hear. The masses turn on the liberals. The tyrant is replaced by another, younger and more ruthless. Once the body politic is infected with the virus of authoritarianism, it can’t be eradicated.”
The production will inevitably be compared to Hytner’s 2003 Iraq War-inflected Henry V; but unlike the recent Julius Caesar in New York, which gave the title character a blonde combover, the Trump allusions here are more restrained. The warning is not straightforwardly against dictatorship, rather the dangers of bypassing the political system with good intentions but insufficient muscle. How do well-meaning liberals uphold their principles when the other side fights dirty?
Accordingly, Ben Whishaw’s Brutus has the air of one of those intellectuals who think that revolution is a brilliant idea right up to the moment they get shot for wearing glasses. In deposing Julius Caesar, he and his fellow conspirators give too little thought to what comes next, allowing Mark Antony (David Morrissey) to use Caesar’s funeral to paint the dead dictator as the people’s champion, murdered by a self-satisified elite. Paul Arditti’s clever sound design helps here, with the funeral speeches reverberating round the pit as Mark Antony declares Brutus to be an “honourable man”.
In truth, this is one of Shakespeare’s wobblier plays. Hytner has sensibly hacked it down to two hours, no interval (still not beating the Donmar’s recent all-female production, which got through it in 90 minutes flat), but there is often movement as a substitute for drama. I found myself jealous of the promenaders: Bunny Christie’s dynamic set of rising blocks meant they got hustled round the space every few minutes, and their experience of the smoke and gunfire must have felt far more visceral than it did in the gallery. Plus you’re just inches from the actors: if you’ve ever wanted to be jostled by David Morrissey, this is your chance.
With a “high concept” production, the fear is always that it’s compensating for flatness elsewhere; there seemed to be little love for the words, turning this into an intellectual experience rather than an emotional one. Caesar (David Calder) cuts a surprisingly weak figure in a battered sports jacket next to the tracksuited vigour of Mark Antony. The relationship between Brutus and Cassius (Michelle Fairley) is touching but underpowered, the minor characters well played but unmemorable. Still, I definitely agree that dictators are bad. l
Until 15 April. National Theatre Live performance at cinemas on 22 March
The Bridge Theatre, London SE1
This article appears in the 07 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry