Nick Hytner doth bestride the narrow world like a colossus. Or at least, he’s a pretty big deal in the theatrical quarter of it. And the second show at his brand-new Bridge Theatre has him all over it. He gave us a timely, Iraq-infused Henry V at the start of his National tenure 15 years ago, now he gives us a timely, Trump-infused (or rather, Trump-inspired) Julius Caesar at the start of his new artistic directorship. Gone is the proscenium arch of Young Marx. The Bridge’s auditorium has been reconfigured in the round, with a large, empty pit at its centre. A fitting arena for a clash of titans.
But, oh god, it’s so cringe. At least to begin with. You walk in, and there’s a four-person rock band doing covers of everything from Katy Perry to The White Stripes. There’s thunderous roars being piped through the sound system. There’s great big banners of David Calder’s Caesar, emblazoned with the inexplicably shit slogan “Do This!” (yeah, me neither). It is, particularly if you’re herded into the pit to be part of a hundred-strong Roman mob, squeamishly awkward. They desperately want you to get involved. No, Nick, I am not going to start a mosh pit in the theatre. I’m just not.
It’s like your ma telling you she’s been listening to Stormzy, or your dad wearing ripped skinny jeans. It’s like Hytner, standing there proudly tapping his feet, with a natty red “CAESAR” cap on his head and a nifty “Do This!” t-shirt on (yours for just a fiver), going “Hey, kids! You know that immersive Shakespeare marathon by that big Belgian fella you all loved? Well, look at this! Look at me! I can do it too! I’m cool!” The immediate issue, cool Nick, is that immersive theatre in a £12 million venue that flogs bread and butter (bread and butter!) for £2.70 feels like a Banksy on the walls of Buckingham Palace. Just out of place. It tastes wrong, just like the £6 cheese and chutney sandwich.*
But then, once the crappy band shut up and we dive into the nitty-gritty wheelin-dealing of Republican Rome, it starts to work. And then some. This is thanks, largely, to a cast of stone-cold knockouts – hands down the best ensemble in London right now. Ben “Paddington” Whishaw is the pick of the bunch, offering up a bookish, professorly Brutus who’s always fiddling with his glasses and wears honour like it’s a primary school swimming badge, but the rest are close behind. Michelle Fairley is a wiry, sinewy Cassius (the gender-swap passes without the blink of an eye), David Morrissey a brutish, boorish Mark Antony, and Adjoa Andoh a delectably dry Casca.
But it’s also thanks to Hytner’s intelligence as a director, both of actors and of mise-en-scene. His cast manage to make Shakespearean prose seem as effortless and intelligible as everyday speech, decorating their lines with subtle colloquial flourishes and an easy naturalism. And on a wider scale, he furnishes his immersive staging with some brilliant touches, big and small. Ominous music cranks up the tension, aided by the excision of an interval. Brutus signs a copy his book for a fan. Caesar glad-hands the audience. Everyone wears really nice suits. Shock and confusion ripple through the crowd like a rumour. Yes, someone might accidentally stand on your foot – there’s lots of mouthed apologies – but at times, it’s got the muscular clout and political moment of a House of Cards episode. And that’s a good thing. A very good thing.
And – relief! – the Trump thing really isn’t played up at all. Calder’s Caesar is Trump-ish, but there’s also strong hints of George W Bush in his leather flying jacket and tie. Don’t expect pickets a la New York Public Theater’s Central Park production here, unless they’re complaining about the price of the sarnies. Or the cloakroom queue, which is ridiculously long. Hytner does stress the fickle mob angle, having the cast intermingle with the standing audience throughout, handing out flyers and forcing them to clap, but he allows the core cast to focus on the play’s central question – how far will you go for your principles? – with compelling clarity.
And, lest we forget, the show’s success is also thanks to Old Bill Shakespeare. Julius Caesar gets a bad rep, and okay, it might not be a great play, but it’s a play full of great moments. Cassius slowly winning Brutus to the assassination cause with earnest flattery. The conspirators’ solemn handshakes at dawn. Caesar being bloodily murdered in the Senate. Brutus appeasing mob with sheer logic – Whishaw’s finest hour, a fiddly, finicky masterclass in how to make a famous speech your own – before Mark Antony fires them up again with searing rhetoric. It falls apart after the funeral – those tricky war scenes are always naff, and Hytner struggles to find a military context to rival his political one – but bloody hell, before that it’s totally thrilling. Do This!
I had my doubts about the Bridge. I still do. I’m not sure London really needed another Thames-side theatre for rich, white folk, particularly when they’ve got one barely a mile upriver. This stonking Caesar hasn’t won me round to the two Nicks’ cause – not that they give a shit, obviously – but it has made me think. I’m not sure there’s another theatre in Britain that would or could do something this bold, on this scale.
*That’s unfair. I haven’t tried the £6 cheese and chutney sandwich. Of course I fucking haven’t. It’s £6.
Julius Caesar is at the Bridge Theatre until April 15th. For more details, click here.