Julius Caesar – Review

Ben Whishaw in Julius Caesar. Images Manuel Harlan

London’s new Bridge Theatre, and its artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, flex their muscles with an innovative and punchy, modern-dress production of Shakespeare’s political play, Julius Caesar, which opened this week.

I was told, in advance, that this gung-ho, modern dress adaptation would show the capabilities of the capital’s newest theatre. Boys with their toys, eh? What are they like?

And, yes, it’s very much that but Hytner has also come up with a bold, muscular production that will attract much needed younger theatre-goers to Shakespeare and, what’s more, they’ll leave wanting a return ticket.

Here’s a show that rocks, from its raucous concert opening to its full-on battle finale.

The play is being touted as a promenade production. What this means is that the Bridgelings who have opted for standing tickets, are put into the thick of the action.

They are herded, pushed and cajoled into playing the mob for two solid hours – there’s no interval – with no slouching, crouching, leaning or passing out allowed. Be prepared to move, frequently and sharpish.

On opening night the under 35s loved the concept of a Shakespearean mosh pit which altered shape every few minutes as stages rose and fell into different combinations.

They danced, cheered, campaigned and mourned. Just your everyday Julius Caesar experience. Older standees just wished they could sit down.

The show’s informal, and very loud, opening sees a street band, led by Globe regular, Abraham Popoola, thrash out a few tuneful ditties to get the audience in the mood.

There’s very much a rock fest vibe with hawkers moving through the crowd selling tee-shirts, baseball caps and drinks, as the rabble, initially bemused and then whooping, clapping and dancing, become intoxicated with the atmosphere.

Into the heaving throng struts David Calder’s Caesar, looking like he’d taken costume advice from Donald Trump, and his PR man, Mark Antony (a grey-bearded and rather grizzled-looking David Morrissey).

While Caesar works the crowd, and sees Antony off on a charity marathon, there is treachery afoot from those who believe the wrong man is in power (and where have we heard that?).

Ben Whishaw makes an unlikely Brutus. The most infamous traitor in history (possibly after Judas) is bookish, unsure of himself, constantly twiddling with his hair, and desperate to project himself as a balanced, educated, reasonable man with right on his side.

His remarkable transformation into a crack shot, action hero, in the final scenes of this drama, therefore, take some believing but Whishaw always delivers an impressive performance and here it is nuanced and compelling.

In a spot of gender-blind casting, Michelle Fairley is a fearless Cassius alongside Adjoa Andoh as fellow conspirator Casca.

Post-Caesar’s demise (and no complaints about that being a plot spoiler) Rome is thrown into turmoil. The mob listen to Whishaw, being his most persuasive, convincing them that what he, and the other traitors did, was for the good of the country and its people.

But his rhetoric is nothing compared to Morrissey’s big moment as Mark Antony’s furious, vengeful and devious “honourable man” speech, manipulates the baying plebeians into rising up against their wholly unprepared liberators.

Pretty soon war has broken out and the auditorium comes under a attack. It’s loud, raucous and frenzied and the crowd loved every minute of it.

Julius Caesar runs at the Bridge Theatre until April 15 and is screened to cinemas, as part of NT Live, on March 22.

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