FringeReview UK 2018
In Nick Hytner’s modern-dress promenade production of Julius Caesar at the Bridge, Bunny Christie’s promenade set allows full rein to Paul Arditti’s sound, the lighting and explosions of Bruno Poet. Nick Powell’s music includes one breath-taking coup. Christina Cunningham’s costumes are modern dress. Till April 15th.
‘She thinks too much. Such a one is dangerous.’ Caesar’s necessarily re-gendered Cassius because of casting, but it’s this thinking, rather than the lean and hungry look he prefaces it with that polarises this absorbing, ear-splitting Bridge Theatre Julius Caesar.
And peaked caps don’t quite herald modern dictators, even when they’re tossed into the crowd. Christina Cunningham’s costumes feature Caesar’s leather jacket as shrewd fashion statement. Despite being started with a rock band, Nick Hytner’s modern-dress promenade production of Julius Caesar is far more subtle than its initial engagement appears – and so is David Calder’s Caesar. Amidst the explosions of Paul Arditti’s sound, the lighting and explosions of Bruno Poet, the audience is certainly roused and moved with the active complicity of live shows, not plays.
Nick Powell’s music includes one breath-taking coup. At Caesar’s funeral lament an electric guitar twangs the slow funeral theme from Beethoven’s Eroica Third Symphony of 1804. It laments the death of a hero, but became a lament for Napoleon who as far as Beethoven was concerned died as a man seventeen years before his body died. It’s a fitting, edgy tribute.
David Morrissey with a loud shirt proclaiming Mark Antony cheer-leads on the platform Bunny Christie supplies with various ramps and drops. Do It – Julius Caesar emblazons backdrops Morrissey emphasises before disappearing for a third of the play. There’s far more high tech later. Meanwhile the zestiness of the Lupercal only gets interrupted – finally – with those killjoy tribunes wanting to rip off all posters of Caesar’s triumphs (we see them getting ‘silenced’ later).
This is a sinewy Julius Caesar, alert with referencing the ebb and scream of Roman politics, its just-contained proletarian furies, manipulated as the audience get jostled around by various minders; its emerging class of protégé despots, its sidelined Republican intellectuals who let everything slip out of Hampstead arrogance. The object lesson is despots win because of their common touch; and the touch hardens from a cloth cap to a solid gold dais where Caesar ends. It’s not a point that needs underlining with local U.S. turbulence, because that’d erase Hytner’s wider themes.
For instance there’s a sudden hush of intimacy when we see Ben Whishaw’s Brutus and Michelle Fairley’s Cassius in a Hampstead-style café, Whishaw distract with revolutionary theory and Fairley awash with hurt. She’s almost the first female Cassius but she also compares well to the RSC’s superb Martin Hutson last year (in Angus Jackson’s memorably lean production), who seemed till now the defining Cassius of our times. Fairley’s joins him. Fairley’s regard for Whishaw may be gendered but this is neatly underplayed too, her hand-wrung love for him that of a watchful comrade who very rarely steps into his physical space or demands intimacy. It could easily have slid into an edgily sexualised stand-off. Fairley’s more complex and her face shows it in telegraphic micro-shudders: politically and militarily shrewder, here not as furious as Hutson but with a palpable melancholy brimming with ways to ease it. Permanently.
Indeed the way Whishaw responds might alert us to the way Julius Caesar disposes of women, unlike Antony and Cleopatra about eight years later. Wendy Kweh’s fine Calpurnia makes some impression but Calder indulges her merely, belittling her as he increasingly ramps up his own rigidity. Leaphia Darko’s Portia is give short shrift, indeed doesn’t manage to more than glance off Whishaw’s dismissive Brutus in a rather low-key encounter. So Fairley’s Cassius seems at a gendered disadvantage that makes more sense in this light than previously (why Cassius is always overruled isn’t a simple matter).
Which is why Adjoa Andoh’s Casca is such a delight: sardonic, scornful, hesitating to take the hand of Mark Antony (as does Cassius) hers is the definitive Casca, beautifully etched in the biting acid of a revolutionary print shop. You can see why she strikes the first blow. Leila Farzad’s Decius Brutus too is refreshingly smooth-tongued and impresses. ‘Decius Brutus loves you not’ rings with a copper bottom. Abraham Popoola’s Trebonius struts and declaims with ringing nobility too. You believe his final gesture. Nick Sampson’s weary Cinna who also parries Brutus’ final request is roundly caught, a man who’d rather not be here but feels he has to be.
Whishaw’s Brutus is more than distracted. He’s often typically an armchair revolutionary somehow scornful of the more practically-grounded Cassius. Here though Whishaw strips away the more obvious attributes of leadership, even warmth and suggests it’s his intellect and personal integrity alone that marks him out as a leader even his enemies acknowledge. Whishaw brings out Brutus’ bookishness more convincingly than anyone recently. It’s a commanding interpretation of a man who even in reconciliation with Cassius for instance seems otherwhere. It’s why his internalised grief at losing Portia is both convincing and chilling.
Calder’s progress from affable even patient leader in leather is palpable. He demonstrably takes time to read the soothsayer’s prophesy before tossing it back. He’s affable enough with Calpurnia, and then with Decius’ knife-word ‘afraid’ turns into his full dictat mode, which he asserts with the quiet iron ring of finality. There’s no thunder: that’s for Morrissey later. Calder’s gravity is the more impressively inflexible.
Morrissey’s Mark Antony seems even more separate from his fellows than he usually does. Morrissey’s vocal smokiness impresses, he really does cry havoc with the sinews of a rough but intensely conniving soldier. With the same populist instincts differently expressed than his mentor Caesar, he’s also more masterful than Kit Young’s neatly callow Octavian, whose time will come. What Morrissey lacks is vocal engagement, in that he starts and goes on in a roar that has nowhere more voluble to go to. And because his register’s different to everyone else – there’s a telling point where he tosses away the microphone he’s been using and it plays to his strengths – he interacts even less than Mark Antony normally does. Because Hytner’s dispatching his business in under two hours, we hurtle through the potential conflicts between Morrissey and Young, so nods to Antony and Cleopatra are lost; though being eight years off, one wonders if Shakespeare dreamt of writing it.
Together with several definitive and newly-founded interpretations, it’s Hytner’s lithe political thriller that emerges by contrast as a physical assault on the senses. From out of the smoke and flashes of this outstanding production, there’s jumpings-on and off as participants run up from all sides and even jostle people out of the way. Christie’s set allows everything from balloons to emerging jeeps up ramps and the spoils of war to litter the dreadful peace. Angus Jackson’s RSC production shows how completely satisfying a traditional toga production can still be. It’s the best of recent years, indeed the best all round till this ground-breaking production that recalls the way John Schlesinger’s 1980s production redefined Shakespeare’s Roman Histories. There, each scene moved forwards in period from Roman times till World War One. Here, the parallels are more deadly: reaching to an uneasy future that might overtake us yet.
Note to NT Live screening. Tony Grech Smith’s team ensured that as is often the case, the screen audience get the best of the visuals to compensate for not being there – which this time meant missing out on being jostled. However with the smoky alarums of confusion and strife the swoops and close-ups were more telling. It wasn’t just neatly-caught shots of red covers slipping over the cortege; the photography gave screen viewers the vantage live audience members palpably lack as they crane up to see much of the ramps above them, or peer though justled and flash-blinded eyes. Not to mention the smoke and brilliantly distracting bangs – loud enough in Conrad Fletcher’s adjustment of sound. The clarity of Hytner’s production was enhanced and it’s good to know it’ll be preserved.