Julius Caesar was always one of my favourite Shakespeare plays; having read it for O level (yes, I know that ages me) it has so many passionate speeches and fascinating characters that have stayed with me all my life. But until last year I’d never seen a production; then Robert Hastie’s production at the Sheffield Crucible finally put that right. And now, like buses, here comes another one, this time directed by Nicholas Hytner at the (nearly) new Bridge Theatre adjacent to Tower Bridge.
They promised that the first three productions at the Bridge would each reveal the versatility of this new acting space. So far, they are true to their word. For Young Marx, Mark Thompson designed a revolving set that created a number of scenes with simple ease. Who knows how it will appear for the next production, Nightfall, which we will be seeing in May. For Julius Caesar, they’ve gutted the whole centre area to create a pit, which means you can choose either to sit in the galleries overlooking the action, or be part of it, wandering around the centre hobnobbing with the actors. And what a huge arena it turns out to be!
I’m always a sucker for immersive staging. I think it’s because of my first ever exposure to it, when I had “promenade” tickets for the National Theatre’s Passion at the Cottesloe back in 1978. I managed to be within two feet of the moment when the late Mark McManus’ Jesus (I’ll never forget his extraordinarily piercing blue eyes) stared with equal fury and pity at Jack Shepard’s Judas, and the surge of power that came from that simple stare remains one of my all-time favourite experiences in theatre. Ever since then, I’ve always hoped for a similar experience in a promenade-type show. The nearest I’d come to it in recent years was In Your Face’s Trainspotting, which we saw in Edinburgh a few years ago.
But now we have this new version, and I have to say, being part of the mob is a very exciting experience! For sheer practicality, you have to check in your coats and bags before entering the auditorium but you can take in drinks and a programme – although my advice would be to keep extras to a minimum, as having to hold things becomes a bind over two hours. When you arrive in the pit, you’re suddenly in the world of a Caesar rally. Do This! read the slogans on the caps, T-shirts, badges for sale, in that modern tradition of sound bite politics, full of sound and fury signifying nothing (sorry, wrong play.) Ten minutes before the show starts, a band warms up and gives us a few rocky numbers, including Eye of the Tiger – there’s none of your hey nonny nonny here. Flavius and Marullus wade in and break up the concert, and you discover that the musicians are, in fact, Shakespeare’s First and Second Commoners, and that Mark Antony appears to be their roadie.
From then on, the momentum builds as we see the conspirators beginning to make plans, the warning of the Ides of March, Caesar’s assassination, Mark Antony’s eulogy, the battles at Philippi, and Octavius’ eventual victory. Bunny Christie’s endlessly inventive set moves up and down from the bowels of the earth, and you never know where to look next. The final part of the play brings the reality of war into sharp focus as you’re surrounded by barbed wire, the ashes of burning buildings, military vehicles and very stark murders and suicides. By the time the play has finished you are literally breathless at the excitement and stimulation of it all.
To be fair, it’s not all fun and games in the pit. Inevitably, sometimes you will find yourself standing in Just The Wrong Place, and a whole scene will be happening hidden from your eyes because there’s an armchair in the way (tip – try not to stand at the corners of the individual moving platforms). I know that Cinna the Poet gets mauled to death by the mob (because I’ve read it) but I’ve no idea how that actually happened in this production as it takes place on ground level, and if you weren’t in the right spot, all you know is that there was a scuffle and some shouting. I know that Decius Brutus (maybe it’s Decia in this production) uses her womanly wiles to encourage Caesar to come to the Senate, but because she had her back to us, I don’t know what her expression was. However, Caesar was looking directly at us and what I do know is the he was clearly getting hot under the collar and, shall we say, restricted in the underpants.
The worst part of the pit experience is being regularly bellowed at by Security Officers at every scene change. “GET BACK! GET BACK! GET BACK!” or “COME FORWARD! COME FORWARD!” frequently in pitch black and with lots of pressing bodies around you. At times it doesn’t feel at all safe, and I could easily imagine a less agile person getting injured. “GET DOWN! GET DOWN! GET DOWN!” comes the cry when Caesar is shot. Fortunately I’ve lost a little weight recently; it definitely helped. Panicked by these instructions, you try to make sure that you’re standing in a safe spot, neither toppling into nor being toppled into by your fellow members of the mobile vulgus. Once you’re satisfied you’re safe, you look up at the stage area only to find the scene started ages ago and you’ve missed the first bit; and to be honest, that’s quite annoying. However, I did appreciate the fact that the security officers came on stage during the curtain call and applauded us; a nice touch, I thought. Only then did I fully accept that their hollering at me was nothing personal.
But for every moment you miss, you grab an unexpected golden moment. I looked directly into Casca’s cynical eyes in her early discussions with Cassius. I observed Brutus standing anxiously next to me whilst Caesar was taking his seat at the Senate, no doubt working out when would be the right time to pull out his pistol. I was given a white flower by the Soothsayer to hold at Caesar’s funeral. I was in perfect position to see the body of Caesar wheeled in, when Antony reveals the wounds caused by the conspirators. I was there when he comforted the weeping citizens; I was there when he read Caesar’s will, and I joined in the cheers of the crowd. I witnessed Brutus escaping from the battle and reaching for his bottle of hand sanitiser. The other punters may well have seen all these things from the comfort of the expensive seats; but whereas they were watching a play, I was witnessing reality.
It’s a superb production, energising and vitalising, capturing your imagination and driving home those themes of mob rule, manipulative oratory, superstition, and political intrigue. David Calder is brilliant as the brash Caesar; you sense he’s the man who can play the media game, who knows how to orchestrate a crowd. As he marches triumphantly through the mob he comes across as someone who has just wiped the floor with his opponents and is unstoppable in his hunger for power. A perfect combination of vain and vulnerable, he should have taken his wife’s advice and stayed home but instead he ridiculed her lily-livered approach and paid the ultimate price. At the complete opposite end of the scale, Ben Whishaw is a cerebral, calm, diligent Brutus whose life is lived at a writing desk. His every step is planned, his greatest ambition, you would think, is to be considered honourable – as Mark Antony constantly points out. He’s perfect in the role, accentuating Brutus’ controlling, respectable nature; believing that the ordinary people will respond to his address at Caesar’s funeral, he magnificently misunderstands how the power of Antony’s oratory will shape the mob’s reaction.
David Morrissey is very arresting as Antony; from the moment he gets up on stage with the rock band, his is a performance of huge vitality and inspiration. He would make a very dangerous politician in real life because you’d believe everything he said. Michelle Fairley, taking the gender-alternative role of Cassius, is very lean and hungry in her no-nonsense, careful way; a clever combination of risk-averse and ultra risky. It’s an all-round excellent ensemble performance, with great support from Adjoa Andoh as a knowing Casca, Leila Farzad a confident Decius Brutus, Fred Fergus a willing Lucius and Mark Penfold as a creepy soothsayer.
A memorable and exciting production, participating from the pit gives you a uniquely different experience from merely observing from the seats. I’m really glad we decided to see the show from this perspective. Julius Caesar is on at the Bridge until 15th April.
Production photos by Manuel Harlan