William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (Director: Nicholas Hytner, Br/dge Theatre)
Memory is a curious thing.
I’d wanted to see Ben Wishaw in Julius Caesar, even though I regarded it as a dull play, but I assumed that by the time I got round to booking the tickets, sat in my parents’ living room with Dad shortly before Christmas, I’d be too late.
And I thought it dull having seen – I thought – a production of it at Leicester Haymarket, directed by John Dexter and starring John Duttine and Tim Pigott-Smith. Digging around online, the Leicester Haymarket production seems to have been in Autumn 1988, after I’d left for college, and had a different cast. There was a touring production with Duttine and Pigott-Smith – might I have seen that at Nottingham – or Hull New Theatre or even (I really think not) at Manchester?
So here we have Wishaw as Brutus, David Morrissey as Mark Antony, David Calder as Julius Caesar and Michelle Fairley as a regendered Cassius. I do remember seeing Calder in the audience for King John in the much-missed t’Other Place at Stratford – the year after Star Cops.
For the second production at The Bridge, Nicholas Hytner has decided not only to go for an in-the-round format (which I find I prefer) but also a promenade performance (which is a little bit eek). The audiences are chivvied and herded around, as portions of the floor rise and fall to offer platforms and stages. Of course, on one level this is showing off about what this space can do – after the traditional rotating set behind proscenium arch at Young Marx — but it also means that the audience is aware of the rest of the audience even more than the typical in-the-round style. As you enter the auditorium, there are concession stands selling beer, nuts, baseball caps and tshirts, and a band strike up a number of rock anthems until they are joined by a track suited Mark Antony. I’m assuming the theatre staff were in character, so it wasn’t a Brechtian move. This was all clearly too much for some – perhaps after an afternoon at the football, I saw a couple of casualties. And of course, this is a play about the crowd.
It doesn’t really like crowds.
Caesar is declared to be a tyrant, eating into rights and freedoms of the people of Rome, who must be deposed – but he is much liked by the people and seems to speak their language. Donald Trump seems to be the analogue Hytner has in mind, even down to the red baseball cap tossed into the crowd and the drinking of colas. It’s a while since I read the play, but his tyranny seems to be mostly expressed by our contradictory aversion to popular (or populist?) leaders, rather than what we see him do, although when he finally gets to the senate, he is rejecting various requests for clemency. Cassius is the Iago, whispering in the ear of previously loyal Brutus, but her motives seem to be as much envy that Caesar got all the kudos from the recent battles. Brutus, meanwhile, seems to be acting on the idea that autocracy is bad compared to democracy and assumes a rational transition. Morrisey’s northern Mark Antony is able to assume a plain-speaking, I’m not part of the swamp of Rome, orator at Caesar’s funeral, and swiftly sways the crowd against the conspirators.
The people get what they want and it serves them right.
Civil war descends, and we could as well be in Serbia as Italy, with the wreckage of concrete and barbed wire barricades wheeled onto the stage in yet another pure moments of theatre. I’d forgotten how it ends for Brutus (spoilers!) but I did Antony and Cleopatra for A Level and I knew that Octavius Caesar, Mark Antony and Lepidus get to be triumvirates, with Octavius rather ambitious for more. Indeed, by the end of Julius Caesar he is clearly on the make.
As Caesar is absent for much of the first half of the play and only a silent presence for the second, and Mark Antony seems a minor role until the conspiracy is about to be hatched, Wishaw’s Brutus walks away with the play. Is it deference that names the play after Caesar rather than Brutus? Of course, the Henry IV plays are rather more about Hal than the king. Wishaw is the softly spoken intellectual, a Faustus without ambition, neglecting his self-harming wife for his books and seemingly caring more for Cassius. (How do those lines play when both characters are male, I wonder?) I think we see him reading Karl Popper and there’s a biography of Saddam Hussein on his desk, so he knows all about the theory of dictators. He just seems less clear as to what to do after you’ve deposed one.
Historically that may also be the point. In 1599 – which seems to be the currently accepted date – there was an elderly Elizabeth I not quite naming a successor yet (and I’ve just been watching the series on Queen Jane/Lady Jane Grey). The kilometerage of Puritans and Catholics might have varied from the average peasant in the field, but a deposed Elizabeth I would not have ended well. And it seems unlikely Shakespeare could have gotten away with a play about assassination being justifiable. Two years later, the Earl of Essex had organised a performance Richard II at the Globe and by some accounts had seen the parallels herself. And if we look to today’s politics, and rulers that we might not approve of – would the alternatives be any better?
The Bridge, of course, is opposite the Tower of London, palace, armoury and prison, and next to that bastion of democracy, London City Hall, where Red Ken and BoJo once held sway.
In the meantime, this production sweeps you along – it is only two hours long, played without interview, and it does (without ever being dull) feel longer. My prejudice against the play seems misplaced.