Bridge Theatre, London – until 15 April 2018
Broadcast live on NT Live on 22 March
Last summer, New York’s Shakespeare in the Park made international news with its production of Julius Caesar, updated to contemporary America with Caesar looking rather suspiciously like Trump. When the right wing press got wind of it, protests outside the theatre ensued.
Fortunately, this is much less likely at Nicholas Hytner’s similarly Trumpified Caesar. Unfortunately, his look at the division between the ignorant, poor right and educated, middle class left is a simplistic and occasionally wildly inaccurate comparison to real life partisan policies.
A pre-show gig by punkish Trump supporters gets the standing plebs in the pit worked up – we’re dancing and cheering, happily supporting whoever organised the rally while stewards cheerfully sell Caesar-branded merch – including a version of Trump’s red snapback but with Caesar emblazoned across the front in a large, white font. It’s super-fun and easy to see how we mere humans are prone to being seduced by a good time. The clever device is certainly well-staged.
But the band certainly doesn’t look like the sort that would play a Trump rally – particularly in light of all the trouble the man had securing performers for his inauguration. Though the attempt to appeal to the masses by having a good time is believable, the aesthetic of actual good musicians dressed like Thatcher protesters clashes with the ideology they are supposed to represent.
Similarly, the conspirators are played as liberal intelligentsia. There are cardigans, loafers and women in power suits everywhere. Ben Whishaw’s Brutus is a quiet academic with a desk stacked high with books on Stalin. Michelle Fairley as Cassius is a sensible housewife who wants the best for everyone. Casca (Adjoa Andoh) is an observant but motherly gossip.
The trouble with this element of the update is that the American left are known to be largely anti-gun and, well, anti-killing people. Whilst there’s a lot of leftie rage at the moment, when it comes down to it most wouldn’t actually murder a Republican – even the president. When the entire group whips out their handguns and shoot Caesar execution-style, Hytner’s idea develops a gaping hole. It’s wholly untenable and almost laughably so.
The performances are all terribly polite and uniformly well-spoken despite allusions of social class difference – another odd choice that creates dissonance, particularly as Trump supporters are more densely packed in regions with distinctive, non-generic accents. The more reserved characters eventually crack on the battlefields in the final scenes, but the tone until this point is overly calm, educated and reasonable. It’s politically realistic, sure – but not as exciting to watch.
David Morrissey as Marc Anthony gives what is by far the richest and most three-dimensional performance. The rest are largely stereotypes – disappointing choice by the director and a waste of talent capable of great nuance.
Hytner has edited Shakespeare’s script to a swift two hours, with the focus on the build-up to Caesar’s assassination. Though he paces it well, he puts the event over halfway through his production. Shakespeare placed it well before the halfway point, making his story about the unravelling of an empire. Hytner very much tells the story of a death of a leader, and the rest of the narrative is rushed.
Though there are several issues with the concept application, Hytner’s vision succeeds in the staging. The potential for flexibility at the Bridge, in this instance, brings the show into the round with the stalls converted into a space more like the Globe. A fluid playing space is dictated by the raising and lowering of sections of the floor. Stage management doesn’t just move set and props around, they also move the standing audience – in frantic bursts of shouting and shoving that are rough and invasive, whilst drawing on immersive theatre techniques. The lighting and sound come from all directions and are similarly overwhelming as civil war breaks out between the two factions.
Whilst it’s an unquestionably intense, experiential production, the distinct parallels to America’s political landscape is largely a shallow read of the play and applied in such a way that, at times, is so far from the real life it attempts to comment on that it becomes distracting. If a concept was applied with as much thought and skill as the staging, this would be a truly fantastic production.