Review: Julius Caesar ★★★★ – Nicholas Hytner’s timely full-blooded production

Julius Caesar is perhaps Shakespeare’s most topical play right now. Nick Hytner’s modern-dress production for The Bridge Theatre, follows the RSC’s 2017/18 Roman-dress version. A populist leader adored by the populace overreaches himself to the disgust and horror of the ruling elite, who prove fatally to lack the common touch. The mob is swayed back and forth by conflicting oratory, but the people’s choice has to be the one who offers the most tangible rewards – money and quality of life. Brutus, Cassius and their equally patrician co-conspirators step up, but are forced to step aside when Caesar’s protégé Mark Antony expertly plays on the emotions of the ‘ordinary’ Romans mobbing the funeral of their assassinated ‘beloved leader’.

The stand-out feature of Hytner’s vision is to have some hundreds of audience members promenading in the pit, cleared of seating and filled by designer Bunny Christie’s extraordinarily versatile set. His platforms rise and fall to transport the audience to Ancient Rome, from Senate House to Forum, Brutus’s palatial home to battlefield. Hytner’s masterstroke is to cast the promenaders as the Roman mob, ruthlessly controlled by uniformed apparatchiks (perfectly-drilled theatre staff who ensure the promenaders get out of the way of fast-moving scenery).

Although the comfortable option is looking down on action from the seating above, promenading is a vivid, even visceral experience if you have the stamina to stand for two hours (no interval). Your fully immersive experience starts with a rock gig in honour of Caesar’s triumphant entry to Rome and dodging that scenery keeps you on your toes as you fall back in shock and awe at the sight of Caesar’s body, wave placards for Brutus, then Caesar and duck machine gun fire as civil war breaks out.

Although the action takes time to get going – conspirators must be wooed with words and speeches – it builds into a thrilling evening. Gender-blind casting throws up intriguing ideas. Michelle Fairley’s passionate Cassius has an especially uneasy relationship with Ben Whishaw’s finely-drawn, bespectacled Brutus, idealistic, head in the clouds – or in a book. Adjoah Andoh’s sardonic Casca is a special treat and Liela Farzard’s Decius Brutus, the conspirator who allays Caesar’s fears by interpreting his wife Calpurnia’s dream of a statue dripping blood as a favourable omen, is all the more silkily dangerous for being female. The contrast between these women of action and the marginalised wives, Calpurnia and Brutus’s Portia is especially telling here.

David Calder’s bullish, dangerous Caesar hardly needs a baseball cap to invoke a latter-day populist leader. And David Morrissey’s Mark Antony, giving Brutus an object lesson on how to work a crowd, is the most dangerous Roman of them all. Hytner’s is a disturbing and exhilarating vision.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Manuel Harlan

Julius Caesar runs until Sunday 15 April. 7.45pm (Tue-Sat), 2.30pm (Wed & Sat), 3pm (Sun only). £25-£65. Bridge Theatre, SE1 1NL. 0843 208 1846. www.bridgetheatre.co.uk