Getting The Crowds Going

By Ian Shuttleworth

This one’s loud. You might want to take a pair of foam ear defenders. And possibly a camping stool. Nicholas Hytner’s revival of Julius Caesar in his still-new Bridge Theatre minds its Ps and Qs, as in SPQR, the Senate and People of Rome.

Both Caesar and the factions that emerge after his assassination are populists: not as in that New York production last year with a Trumpesque Caesar that led to violent threats against Shakespeare productions, not just of this play, but all over the US. There are baseball caps in evidence, though, as well as posters and flyers distributed among the audience standing in the theatre’s pit.

This isn’t just a matter of playing up to the groundlings as at Shakespeare’s Globe, a Bankside mile or so away. No, here the standing crowd play the crowd: marshalled around to listen to the public orations and whipped up by the likes of a rock band playing (loud) before the show (To be honest, I was surprised that when they belted out the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army, I didn’t hear anyone singing, ‘Ohhh, Ju-li-us Caeee-saaar...!’).
Bunny Christie’s design raises and lowers rostra all over the pit, so the audience also flow around the space from scene to scene. The camping stool bit was an exaggeration, though: gallery seats are available (although, in this configuration of London’s newest, ‘oohest’ major theatre, legroom is on the meagre side). It’s a big-name production, too.

David Calder’s Caesar is significantly more ego than statesmanship: when he tells Cassius to her (yes) face that she ‘has a lean and hungry look’, he could be asking the FBI deputy director which way he voted. Cassius herself, one of several cross-cast roles, is Michelle Fairley, showing the same resolution she did as Catelyn Stark in Game of Thrones. Brutus, always the more thoughtful of the two principal conspirators, is positively bookish in Ben Whishaw’s portrayal, but very finely judged: his funeral speech seems impassioned on the surface, but Whishaw expertly makes it come across as semi- detached, not the sort of thing to reliably win the crowd over. In contrast, David Morrissey’s Mark Antony begins his big speech not just diffidently but downright scared, knowing how much he has to lose if he doesn’t pull it off... which, of course, he does.

The show runs at a whisker over two hours non-stop, and its concentration on the earlier public scenes means that Shakespeare’s Acts IV and V, in particular, covering the resulting civil war, get compressed into half an hour between them. But it doesn’t feel at all skeletal: even in the (still loud) horror of war, we are in the midst of the action ourselves.

Until 15 April at the Bridge Theatre, London SE1, 0843- 208 1846, www. bridgetheatre.co.uk 

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