This production of Julius Caesar runs at The Bbridge Theatre in London, from Wed 21st March – Sun 15th April. This review is based on a performance of the same production by NT-Live at Omnivue, Edinburgh on 22nd April.
Usually we only review productions which you can see at home by streaming, download, or on DVD, but we’re making an exception for this production, because it is the first production of the first new, large, theatre in London for 80 years – and it’s directed by Nicholas Hytner.
Our Bottom Line:
Great new theatre; wonderful director; exciting production; some interesting performances; the ‘wrong play’.
Our Review (***)
To the Omni Vue cinema in Edinburgh on 22nd March to see an NT-Live broadcast of Julius Caesar from the new Bridge theatre in London, with the wonderful director Nicholas Hytner (his production of Hamlet with Rory Kinnear was, for me, the definitive production of Hamlet in our time).
The theatre is pretty flexible in structure and can be re-shaped according to the needs of a production, I understand. For this production, the theatre was configured as ‘theatre in the round’ with a stage (reconfigured at times) in the centre; a standing audience surrounding the stage; and seats behind that. This provided a very flexible space to play in; with scenes on stage; down in the audience at times; and for the battle scenes after the death of Caesar, the stage was re-configured into different spaces. All this worked well; and stage prop changes and reconfiguration were seamless and did not interrupt the action. It’s a great performance space!
The production was exciting. It opened with a rock band on stage who entertained the crowd for a good 10 – 15 minutes with a few songs, and got the audience excited enough to join in the crowd scenes. Their last number was interrupted by Flavius and Marullus acting as party-poopers, much to the audience’s vocal annoyance. The band reprised a couple of times during the play and they also took minor roles in the play, notably Fred Fergus who played Lucius, Brutus’ servant, and provided guitar music in the play.
On to Act One Scene Two, and a first surprise – Cassius had been changed into a female role, played by a woman, Michelle Fairley. I’m more than comfortable with age- and gender-blind productions; females playing males; males playing females; old playing young, etc – it’s just an extension of acting – but I’m usually pretty uncomfortable with changing the sex of Shakespearean characters – there’s often some gender-specific aspects of the character – but Cassius as a woman worked. Cassius is the most sensitive of the four main characters and, perhaps this is my own sexual stereotyping, I usually find women more sensitive than men. I was less convinced by the other character sex-changes: Casca and Decius Brutus included.
And now Caesar enters, played by David Calder. Any resemblance to any American president is purely intentional, and perhaps the whole production should be seen as the conflict between modern traditional values (Brutus) and the New Right (Trump as Caesar). Luckily, he didn’t go so far as having an American accent, but he was overweight, and was happy glad-handing himself through the audience.
When Caesar enters, Brutus cannot be far behind, at least in Act One Scene Two. If Caesar was an American president, Brutus seemed to be a mild-mannered British academic, played by Ben Wishaw. Ben is a wonderful actor (his Richard II in The Hollow Crown was another definitive performance). His Brutus was not so sure-footed, for reasons I’ll outline towards the end of this review.
You’ll have noticed that the production is in modern dress, and this precluded the use of swords or daggers by the conspirators, and by the armies in Act 4 & 5. Instead they had pistols.
Moving swiftly on to the assassination (the play was moving swiftly on as well, it was cut quite hard and ran for 2 hours, excluding the rock music at the start of the show). Caesar sat on a dias at the end of the stage, and the cast took pot-shots at him. There was a rather too long dramatic pause before Caesar said ‘Et tu, Brute’. and then Brutus pulled the trigger – Bang! – Caesar was dead!.
So now we’re at Act Three Scene Two and the funeral orations. With the audience all around them, with strategically placed plebs in the audience, both Brutus and Anthony had the perfect setting for their set pieces. The production made interesting use of a microphone. Brutus gave his speech with the microphone throughout. Anthony started with the microphone, and at the most affecting part, put the microphone away and spoke with his unassisted voice – and most affecting it was – before returning to the microphone for a bit of rabble-rousing.
There was a good contrast between Brutus’ rational argument as to why Caesar had to die, and Anthony’s powerful, emotional speech. What was missing was Anthony’s careful use of oratory to move an initially hostile crowd to a rabble moved to riot against the conspirators. Of course, oratory is rather unpopular in these egalitarian days, but there’s rather a lot of it in Shakespeare, and Anthony’s funeral oration has to be one of the classic examples of how to move a crowd with oratory. Clever use of a microphone is a poor substitute.
The last two acts of Julius Caesar are often rather slow in getting to the deaths of Brutus and Cassius, but here, with the very flexible staging, and quite a lot of judicious cutting we were at Phillipi and their deaths in next to no time.
There was rather too much gunfire for my liking. Of course it gives the impression of excitement and things happening, but actually the scenes only need some quiet, back stage battle sounds, so that we can focus on the emotions of the main characters.
If you have the courage to kill yourself, doing it with a pistol is quite easy. You hold the pistol to your head and pull the trigger.
Killing yourself with a sword is quite difficult, and one can imagine that you might want some help – someone to point the sword at you, or even strike you with it.
Cassius had no difficulty. She held the pistol to head; there was a satisfying bang; and she fell down dead with an elegant little half-turn.
Brutus, of course, asks all his friends in turn to help him die, and with a pistol this is slightly ludicrous, and suggests cowardice. Still Brutus eventually persuades Strato to kill him (though in this production I think it might have been Lucius), and Brutus is dead. Anthony comes on and gives the funeral oration and the play is over.
The audience loved it. The cast received rapturous applause. I was less convinced. The playing space is wonderful; the production is interesting and exciting; the acting good. So what went wrong?
I put it down to three words: power; morality; oratory:
Power (and authority): The play is about power. Caesar is nearly king or an emperor. The conspirators are senators; aristocrats, who envy Caesar’s power; and so they assassinate him. For the play to succeed we have to be convinced of Caesar’s power and authority. In this production, Caesar demonstrated less power than Donald Trump demonstrates. He seemed an implausible leader of the Roman Empire.
Morality: Brutus is an interesting character. Dante placed him in the centre of hell, with Judas Iscariot, because he betrayed Caesar, who was not only his best friend, but had pardoned him for supporting Pompey against Caesar. Shakespeare seems to have thought more highly of Brutus than Dante did, and I read Anthony’s eulogy of him as straight, and not ironic:
This was the Noblest Roman of them all.
All the Conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the Elements
So mixed in him, that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, “This was a man!”
However one read’s the play, it is clear that Brutus, a powerful aristocratic politician, agonises over an extraordinarily difficult moral dilemma. Turning him into a mild-mannered British academic does not help to bring this out.
Oratory: Modern politicians don’t do oratory. With the dominance of TV, they prefer a more folksy approach to the masses (see Ronald Reagan). But Shakespeare does do oratory, and Anthony’s funeral oration is one of the most powerful demonstrations of its power. It’s a great shame to lose that from the play.
Comparisons are oderous – I played Dogberry once – but I shall make a comparison. I’m working on Julius Caesar at the moment and recently watched the MGM version (1953) [review coming shortly] with Marlon Brando (who was not method acting, but seemed to have taken lessons in speaking Shakespearean verse from John Gielgud) as Anthony; James Mason as Brutus; John Gielgud as Cassius; and Louis Callhern as Caesar. Watch it to see Anthony demonstrate the power of oratory; Cassius display intelligence and envy; Caesar demonstrate political power; and Brutus display the agony of his moral dilemma.
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