Nicholas Hytner’s production of Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre has received a staggering amount of praise, and rightly so. One of the first at the new theatre which benefits from a beautiful view over the river Thames, it is a production that captivates, immerses, and impresses. What is so admirable about the production, though, is how well it balances modern comparison and the intrinsic value of the play.
Julius Caesar, in its denouncement of populism and its criticism of liberal hypocrisy, makes it very easy for a modern production to lose sight Shakespeare’s language in a shroud of Trump references, or Brexit allusions. The Platonic suggestion that a democracy naturally leads to a tyranny is overtly clear in lines such as ”I know he would not be a wolf / But that he sees the Romans are but sheep;”, and could be quite easily used as a vehicle to make nods to Nazism, ‘Trumpism’, Stalinism, etc. However, Hytner does not succumb to this temptation in this version any more than a modern director naturally would. Thus, the seminal lines such as ”Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”, and ”Et tu, Brute?” retain their intrinsic linguistic value, and are not tarnished by modern comparisons.
After all, it is the general political comment made in Julius Caesar which gives it such value. That is to say, Shakespeare does not specifically criticise Hitler, Trump, or Stalin, but rather tyranny itself. Indeed, Shakespeare alludes to this ubiquity within the very text: ”How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over, / In states unborn, and accents yet unknown?”. This is where Shakespeare’s genius is perhaps most visible, he understands that the observations in his writing on the human condition, politics, and society are in fact eternal; his musings on the most natural of emotions (e.g. greed, love, jealousy) are as applicable now as they were in the 16th Century. It is the skill of a great writer to see the flaws in people themselves, rather than just in the people of their generation.
Back to Hytner, it is understandable that David Calders’ performance naturally leans towards Trump, if anyone, because of the number of references to what might now be called ‘alternative facts’ within the text. See, for example, Cicero’s powerful observation: ”Indeed, it is a strange-disposed time; / But men may construe things after their fashion, / Clean from the purpose of the things themselves.” But, Julius Caesar at The Bridge Theatre does not lose itself in hints at this element of the text, and maintains a holistic appreciation of the play.
Particularly, David Morissey’s visceral delivery of Mark Anthony’s funeral oration makes excellent use of Bunny Christie’s set design, and Paul Arditti’s sound design. I was lucky enough to experience the production promenading, and thus stood quite literally at Morissey’s feet, thanks to the moving floor that gave the production a certain dynamism. He stood elevated, next to Caesar’s corpse, above by a crowd interspersed with actors. As he spoke, the collective reaction of the crowd was most tangible – the speed with which the consensus of sentiment towards Caesar and what he stood for was clear. This impassioned delivery in the round, which made use of reverb as if Antonius was speaking to innumerable crowds, was one of the most memorable parts of the production. The so-called ‘funeral speech’ contains some of the most striking lines of Shakespearean verse:
”Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar…” (continued here)
Julius Caesar is a play in which the eternal nature of Shakespeare’s writing is most evident, and The Bridge Theatre’s production is one that makes use of the vivacity of his verse. I thoroughly recommend the production, which runs until 15 April and will be broadcasted as part of National Theatre Live on Thursday 22 March.