Bridge Theatre, London – until 15 April 2018
Broadcast live on NT Live on 22 March
Though it is billed as ‘a promenade staging’ and the website refers to ‘mob tickets’ and ‘immersive ticket holders’, make no mistake that if you’re in the pit for Julius Caesar, you’re standing. For two hours.
There’s a bit of movement, as in five paces that way or this when a new bit of the set has to wheeled into place, but don’t be distracted into thinking there’s anything more on offer here than can be gotten further along the South Bank at the Globe (apart from a roof of course, which allows them to charge five times the price, or three times if you book your tickets via TodayTix).
And as with being a groundling, there are decided pros and cons to experiencing theatre this way. The first half of Shakespeare’s political thriller works extremely well under this modern-dress treatment from Nicholas Hytner. As you enter the Bridge Theatre’s auditorium, reconceived into the round here, the pit has the atmosphere of a rock gig – vendors sell beer and baseball caps – and a febrile energy fills the space.
This carries through to the arrival of David Calder’s populist Caesar with his red cap and puerile slogan “Do this!” (Contemporary allusions are clear but later on you may find the mind gets weirdly drawn to Murdoch more than Trump…).
Being in the middle of the action this way brings with it some thrilling moments. As Caesar pontificated just before his assassination, Michelle Fairley’s excellent Cassius was stood right next to me and for a few minutes, I couldn’t help but just watch the stunning detail of her reactive acting as she psyched herself up for the bloody deed ahead.
Having to drop to the ground in the organised chaos once shots were fired got the heart pounding, as did the eruption of riots and street fighting in our very midst. You won’t get that punch-in-the-gut feeling from a seated ticket that’s for sure.
Bunny Christie’s design of rising platforms means that sometimes, sightlines aren’t a problem though Hytner’s decision to keep having people sit at desks or on sofas negates that somewhat and the reality is that you’re always at the mercy of someone taller than you popping up in front of you at the point where you can no longer move freely (something that feels easier to write off when you’re only paying a fiver…). And at one point, I nearly experienced death by fabric which wasn’t the best feeling. That said, I’d still recommend going for the pit rather than seats because of how electric the atmosphere gets down there in this production.
As for the play itself, it is one that I find I like rather than love, even when done at its best. The relevances to modern times come thick and fast – shameless political manoeuvring for personal gain, the whipping up of courts of public opinion, suggestions of fake news, the rise of would-be autocratic leaders, the inability of those in power to ever admit that they’re wrong. And Ben Whishaw’s Brutus and David Morrissey’s Mark Antony, along with Fairley’s beautifully spoken Cassius play these out powerfully. It is rarely a play that moves you though and so it is here, even though it does provide moments of intellectual stimulus.