Shakespeare has a way of resurfacing at the times when particular plays are needed most. Each play’s adaptability allows each director to take it in a new direction of social commentary and highlights that history tends to repeat itself. As ‘Julius Caesar’ is not as common in its reworkings compared to ‘Hamlet’ or ‘Romeo and Juliet’, I was curious to see what director Nicholas Hytner would do with Shakespeare’s play. But from the very start, it was startlingly captivating, with its use of a non-traditional staging to immerse the audience and its striking resemblance to current political campaigns to offer insightful commentary on where we are today.
From the moment Julius Caesar (David Calder) entered the stage in a red baseball cap and tracksuit, the production bore a likeness to Trump’s election campaign. It seems evident that from the most recent political campaigns worldwide, Trump’s is the one to choose by way of offering political and social critique. However, Calder’s ability as Caesar to demonstrate the nature of power through the people and the fragility of this status showed that the power struggles of Ancient Rome aren’t as dissimilar from today’s circumstances as we’d like to think. This fragility of power, then, was shown through Caesar’s fragility in age, and with each oxygen mask and near fall, the power of the opposing Brutus and Cassius grew. Power becomes dependent on other people then, and more importantly the people in the crowd surrounding Caesar. Cleverly, the production demonstrated this through creating a moving round theatre, with different platforms rising and falling almost as frequently as power allegiances shifted.
The audience, then, was shepherded around within a mosh pit of society, allowing themselves to be swayed by the propaganda-driven speeches and making themselves as guilty as the characters in causing the bloody war-ridden end as the people on stage themselves. As quickly then as they became moshers in the opening band scene, they became surrounded by an industrial decaying war setting, and through this seeped a commentary on how quickly and easily a country can descend into civil war. Considering how long ago this production was conceived, its relevance is astonishing. David Calder describes this as ‘a play, within a show, within a rock concert’, which gives the whole production a buzz and a brilliant give and take between audience and actor. Maybe engaging, interactive theatre is a way forwards.
One of the most memorable elements of this production was the relationship between Ben Whishaw as Brutus and Michelle Fairley as Cassius. The chemical partnership beautifully demonstrates the manipulative capabilities of Cassius and her ease in corrupting Brutus. Despite his intellectual status, his susceptibility allows him to justify murder; he becomes the intentionally lost soul of the piece. Equally, Brutus and Mark Antony (David Morrissey) offer contrasts of men who overstep their abilities either to their downfall or their success. Brutus is an intellectual who falls in attempting to become a soldier, and contrastingly Antony grows in power from being an adviser to becoming a military leader. There is a sense that when those in power attempt to claim more authority, or pretend to play roles they cannot, that things will go badly.
Overall, this latest production of ‘Julius Caesar’ was a good choice for London’s new Bridge Theatre, and as a modern reinterpretation, it’s electrifyingly engaging and prevalent in more ways than one. It warns of the fragility of power, the fallibility of knowledge and the fickleness of people. While the play is traditionally set in Ancient Rome, it’s themes and warnings have resonated through history.