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Nicholas Hytner’s punkish, modern-day Julius Caesar makes the play firmly about populism

The production will inevitably be compared to Hytner’s 2003 Iraq War-inflected Henry V; but Trump allusions here are more restrained.

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

Julius Caesar
The Bridge Theatre, London SE1

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry

Credit: Arrow Films
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The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”