Bridge Theatre, London – until 15 April 2018
Broadcast live on NT Live on 22 March
Before the start, singing along with ‘Eye of the Tiger’ in the melée and enjoying the red flags, baseball hats and beer cans, we of the 1968 generation felt quite at home in the standing pit crowd: half gig, half demo, Glasto meets Grosvenor Square, been there before.
But, ringed by the balconies of more conventional seats in this new and thrillingly flexible theatre, this is a Julius Caesar for today. Nicholas Hytner, with pace and humour and a most dramatic immersive design by Bunny Christie, throws it all at Shakespeare’s timeless cautionary tale.
Tyrants, beware conspirators: conspirators, beware that out of the chaos you create may rise another tyranny. Julius Caesar is becoming godlike sole ruler of a newly unstable republic. The assassins who see that this must end are envious and resentful, not all their motives pure: they need to recruit the thoughtful, liberal Brutus.
So they do, and in their moment of bloody achievement the demagogue Mark Antony – in that most artful of speeches to friends, Romans, and countrymen – makes himself the heir, swaying the crowd with sentimental grief for dead Caesar and head-shakingly offering that fatal line of faint praise – “but Brutus is an honourable man… ” And soon the elected senators are butchered and a new regime rises, whose name is not freedom.
Hytner, who over a decade ago gave us a Henry V for the Iraq war age, has pointed up the current parallels – populism, fake news, regime changes – and gleefully refashioned his new theatre to allow some 200 of us, on foot in the pit, to represent the Roman mob.
In the starry hot-ticket scramble for the first night I decided quietly to buy a 25 quid ticket to eschew seating and get down with the kids (and a few of my own age, some of us visibly creaking at the knees) It was worth it. You’ll have a grand night in a seat, for it is a classy production . Ben Whishaw is a marvellous cerebral, bookish worried liberal Brutus, David Morrissey a striding, masterful Antony, and every other part is drawn with gorgeous, often funny delicacy. Notably Michelle Fairley’s earnestly focused Cassius (gender changes work well, after all women do politics too) and Adjoa Andoh as a smoothly humorous, elegantly camp Casca: a sort of female Roman Peter Mandelson. Not a word falls flat, not a scene drags.
And wow, the action! Down in the pit you don’t stand still: the crowd moves, has to reshape, change mood from celebration to fear to confusion, cower. The raised floor proves to be studded with baffling platform sections rising and falling in new conficurations as scenes change, so that eventually a real sense of national upheaval takes you over. You’re helpless, sometimes thrillingly near the action sometimes jostled far back, glad of the occasional chest-level sill to lean on before it suddenly sinks away and another rises behind you , and unbelievably well-drilled stage management hands and voices get you moving back, sideways, out of the way, quick, here come the soldiers, here comes Caesar, quic.k… And the world is rebuilt round you, sometimes in near darkness. Promenade performances can be both boring and hell on the feet, but two hours flashed by in anxious tense silences, rousing speeches, eavesdropping on conspiracy , fleeing through the smoke of battle.
So at last, as I brushed the last of the falling ash from my hair and staggered out past the barbed wire, barricades and ammo boxes of noble Brutus’ final battle, I felt smugly sorry for the poor static comfy lumps in the balconies, glorious though their view no doubt was. We got to cheer Caesar, crouch in terror at the gunshots, suddenly find our noses two feet from Morrissey’s brogues as he cast aside his microphone and spoke from the cunning heart of Antony. I nearly got caught up in the dismemberment of poor Cinna the poet, too ,As Henry V would put it, gentlemen in posh seats up aloft should think themselves accursed they were not here, to mob with us upon the Ides of March. And travel, delighted and warned, through the urgency and desperation of every era’s upheavals.