The first thing you notice about Nicholas Hytner’s Julius Caesar is its atmosphere: we arrive at a political rally, a band playing The White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’, beer and coke are on sale, and you can get a red cap with Caesar’s name on it for £4. The groundlings around me are singing along to Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’ under waving red flags, cheering for someone they haven’t met yet, a cross-armed Caesar who is staring down on them from the banners saying, “Do this!” This opening immediately starts to blur the lines between fiction and reality; you’ve barely entered, and you are already turned into a clapping, stomping crowd. It’s a truly genius way of introducing the themes of political manipulation and populism.
The new theatre proves its versatility after an end-on production of Young Marx; this time, the seating is gone from the middle of the theatre, and 400 of us are standing on the ground, surrounding the play’s action. Bunny Christie’s brilliant solution is to elevate the performers with platforms growing out of the ground seamlessly, a set design that guides attention and allows transitions to happen smoothly and aesthetically.
Hytner’s grip on atmosphere, however, becomes less powerful as the play progresses. Throughout the evening I am asked to move, run and go outside, commands that constantly make me feel like I am in the way of the play, rather than being part of it. The constant shuffling makes the audience engagement laboured and occasionally forced, and towards the end it almost becomes too chaotic to truly enjoy Shakespeare’s portrayal of what happens when a political leader is sacrificed for the good of the people – the chaos of loud sounds and audience plants running around almost obscures the chaos in the words, and in the lack of control of our lead characters. It is the feeling I often get with promenade performances: we are utilised, for sure, but are we activated? Is our presence truly needed, or are we just a sea of people, bodies for the pre-recorded audience reactions that are played through the loudspeakers?
It would have been very interesting to allow the audience to react in an authentic way, without the urges of audience plants or voiceover, especially because the cast is truly captivating and are able to engage the spectators: Michelle Fairley is a persuasive and strong-minded Cassius, whose final moments on stage are truly heart-breaking; David Calder, although wearing a red power tie and a matching cap, resists the mimicking of the American President and portrays a self-loving Caesar, allowing parallels to be drawn without any hand-holding; and David Morrissey presents a manipulative and passionate Mark Anthony. The most interesting to watch, perhaps, is Ben Whishaw’s bookish take on Brutus, a man who finds himself in the middle of historic events and applies hand sanitiser in the midst of battle.
Ultimately, Julius Caesar is a well paced, compelling production with one of the best beginnings I have encountered – I just wish the magic could have lasted throughout.
Julius Caesar is playing at The Bridge Theatre until 15 April 2018
Photo: Manuel Harlan