Saturday, 24 March 2018

Play for today… Julius Caesar, The Bridge Theatre

How many ages hence, shall this our lofty scene be acted over, in states unborn and accents yet unknown?

I’ve not seen Julius Caesar since the Bolton Octagon many years past. The performance area in the Bridge has eight sides but that is where any similarity ends in what is one of the most original and energetic Shakespearean productions I’ve seen. Down in the Pit, following the action in close quarters, seeing every expression every spat-out line and being herded around through assassination then civil war, this was the most physically engaging theatre.

We arrived to find David Morrisey belting out Eye of the Tiger (or perhaps Tiber?) with the house band/actors, who then kicked into Seven Nation Army before a punk thrash song of political defiance.

Off to a flyer – is this a gig or a Shakespeare and are we an audience or performers? Any disorientation was short-lived as Lady Stark and Paddington Bear began plotting impressively. Michelle Fairley (as Caius Cassius) and Ben Wishaw (Marcus Brutus) are far more than those famous roles and both have the beautiful knack of being able to wrap sixteenth century lines in twenty first century meaning: you hang on every word as they both make the task of translating the iambic complexities look effortless.

Michelle Fairley and Ben Wishaw 
But they are not alone in a world-class cast that combines youth and experience in exhilarating fashion. Nicholas Hytner, the Bridge’s co-founder after 12 years at the National directs with audacity aided by the best sound, lighting and stage designers in Bermondsey and beyond to create a riotous show that takes its subject matter in its stride. The pitch is just right and there is wit enough to overcome any vestige of concern at pop-art Bard… they mean it man and there’s genuine anarchy in the SPQR.

David Morrisey is the scousest Mark Antony in stage history, possibly channelling Pete Wylie in this story of the blues (and reds). The keynote speech at Caesar’s funeral is quite brilliantly wrought as Morrisey takes the opening lines almost as an apology, smuggling the full force of the message in as he repeats that “Brutus is an honourable man…” It’s one of the great political set pieces in the canon and he makes it sound freshly considered, as he lays his heart open to his fellow citizens before playing from the strength he knows he has: Caesar’s crowd-pleading will.

Even in death, Caesar returns to haunt the conspirators and in Brutus’s case, quite literally as the consequences of the assassination throw an out-of-kilter republic into the arms of another Caesar, Octavius (Kit Young) and the very authoritarian rule by a single individual they were trying to avoid: Octavius, later Augustus, was to rule for 40 years, the longest-reigning emperor.

Photographers from Manuel Harlan
Shakespeare seems fully aware of this and as Peter Holland points out in his programme essay, hardly makes a convincing case that assassination works although the staging of the play in New York shortly after President Trump’s inauguration was controversial enough… oh my, so literal these alt fact people…

As a play about democracy it is still undeniably rich in meaning and this is reinforced as we the people formed our opinions in close proximity to the performers. In the aptly-named Pit, the Bridge’s actors can see the whites of their audiences’ eyes and it must be a visceral challenge unlike almost any other theatre this side of the Globe or intimate venues outside of the reliably constructed fourth walls of the West End.

The act of watching and being watched impacts on our role as an audience too and we’re engaged out of politeness and fascination – a very human response to the performers in close proximity as well as a reaction to the force of their story-telling.

David Calder’s deep tones were perfect for Caesar and they reminded me of the rich textures of Paul Schofield’s delivery. Michel Fairley was the perfect female Cassius, earnest and sincere in her aims whilst risking all to save the Rome she loves. Brutus is the man she needs to convince and even though she uses fake messaging – letters purporting to be from sympathetic citizens, think Cambridge Analytica in Latin and on parchment – in this reading her aims are well intentioned… Brutus is sympathetic, a man of conscience with honour; the noblest Roman of all in Marc Anthony’s final summation.

Also worthy of note is the sublime Adjoa Andoh as Casca and Hannah Stokely whose Metellus had to misfortune to die right in front of me. Abraham Popoola also cuts an impressive figure as Trebonius and also as the house band’s lead singer. In truth the large cast are all superb and I do them a disservice by not mentioning them by name.

This Julius Caesar is a thrilling and thought-provoking ride that will stay with you for days. I would urge you to go and see it and to watch it form the Pit; the Bridge is a well-structured and intimate venue even from the seats but eyeball-to-eyeball, in the midst of the action you will really feel this play more than any other in London!

And, you will ask yourself: how should we be ruled?

Julius Caesar plays at the Bridge until 15th April so you haven't much time: so do it now!

Ithankyou Theatre Rating ***** Visceral and – yes – devastatingly immersive!

World-class cast

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