Nicholas Hytner’s new production of Julius Caesar creates an immersive, exhilarating and, quite frankly, exhaustingly vigorous atmosphere inside the newly built Bridge Theatre. Ben Wishaw, Michelle Fairley, David Calder and David Morrissey all star in the theatre’s second ever production, performing to two audiences: the first seated in the round looking onto the arena, and the second standing amongst the chaos of the play as they join a crowd of hundreds that witness and participate in the chaos of Julius Caesar.
Just to be clear, this post won’t be a review per se but rather a reflection on the experience Hytner created in this new and exciting theatre as well as an opportunity for me to place this production against contemporary trends in both theatre and politics. For those here just to find out whether the show is worth seeing or not: this production of Julius Caesar takes current political issues, trends in 21st century theatre and traditional Shakespearean performances to create a spectacular piece of theatre that, whether you enjoy Shakespeare or not, will stimulate and challenge anyone who takes the time to see it. Tickets are reasonably priced and if possible, I’d recommend joining the mob and get a promenade ticket that lands you amongst both the intimate yet riotous Rome that Hytner has pieced together: https://bridgetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/julius-caesar/
This production of Julius Caesar not only solves a problem that I believe many other productions of the play, one which I will describe later, have but brings important themes, trends and conversations to the forefront in an exceptionally unique approach. I’m going to break down each of these elements to hopefully shed some light on the thinking behind the complexities of this production. But first, let’s reminisce back to the days of English Literature GCSE, scrolling through Sparknotes and online summaries, as we recount a basic breakdown of Julius Caesar. I’ve drawn a John Truby style character web between the four key characters, summarising their motive, relationship with others and a quote which encapsulates their behaviour throughout the piece:
So what’s so special about Hytner’s Production?
The choice to produce this piece at the Bridge Theatre is not just a decision tied to the venue’s spatial flexibility but is an integral part of the theatre’s opening. This is the Bridge’s second ever production, following Richard Bean and Clive Coleman’s Young Marx which was also directed by Hytner, thus, the venue is still trying to find an identity and locate exactly what sort of audience it can expect. Looking at the Julius Caesar’s advertising around London, this play has been marketed in a similar fashion to a blockbuster film; with a well-known cast, cheap ticket prices and bordering on cinematic posters plastered all over the London tube, similar to gloomy movie posters.
I assume an unknown, potentially more mainstream audience, has influenced the piece to try and escape traditional staging arrangements. Upon walking in, you are greeted with a festival like atmosphere as stage hands dash around selling beer from trolleys and the audience bounces along to a rendition of The White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’ atop a stage with a banner reading “Do this! JULIUS CAESAR” behind them. Is this a political rally? An uprising against Caesar? Who knows, but what’s important is that this moment has created an avid atmosphere and has warmed the crowd up for what will be a surprisingly exhausting couple of hours.
The play opens with the plebeian crowd (that’s us) getting swept aside to allow for the opening scene to begin amongst the crowd. Characters pass through the audience and step onto specific parts of arena which rise and fall depending on the scene. The staging of the entire piece soon proves itself to be a fantastic amalgamation of the Globe’s groundlings, Punch Drunk’s promenade theatre (where an audience walks around a living, breathing world that has been created for the play), and a music gig where the audience borders on mosh pit as you are swept out of the way of a literal moving stage.
To say this is immersive theatre would be an understatement as the line between London audience and Roman mob becomes blurred: we chant Caesar’s name during moments of celebration, are given posters of Caesar to hold up during his funeral and are slowly persuaded by Antony during his funeral speech as actors planted in the audience shout in agreement.
The staging is also an effective solution to a problem many productions face with this play, which is the diversity and scale of the locations each scene takes place in. While every play must imagine creative ways to convince an audience they are watching different locations fold into existence before them, the political and social scale of Julius Caesar can prove challenging to many productions in this regard as the location of each scene must clearly clarify a relationship between the character’s in each scene and the people of Rome. The specific location of each moment must constantly connect to a location unseen by the audience. The Bridge Theatre’s physical adaption of space in its use of an ever-shifting set helps build a believable world, yet the fact you, as an audience member, are literally swept across this arena to watch each new scene from a new angle is what truly drops you into the volatile Rome Shakespeare presents. However, I believe this use of elevation and audience interaction goes even deeper and can further be interpreted as a commentary of today’s political situation in the ways it draws similarities between a Shakespearean audience and the way in which the public are communicating politically today.
Oh God, this blog is getting political!
Without picking a side or identifying with a particular political or social belief, a process I think most people can agree on today is that there exists a fragmentation of political discourse. Rather than political platforms acting as a place to discuss and debate both sides of an argument, policy or movement, with an acknowledgement of the opposing side’s legitimacy of their argument; political discourse is instead an echo chamber as one sphere of people, with very similar social and political beliefs, agree with one another about a particular issue while transforming ‘the other side’ into a representation of everything wrong with the issue at hand. This is, of course, a massively over-simplified explanation of today’s political discourse but it is something I hope many readers can relate to, whether this be on global issues, specific individuals or even on less political issues such as the audience reaction for a new film or which cat meme deserves to be at the top of your News Feed.
The reason for this chasm can be blamed on countless complex causes by people with a far greater knowledge of this than myself. However, a large factor is the 21st century’s attention economy in which news coverage, media and online discussions become the most extreme version of themselves to garner the attention needed to be recognised. If everyone has an opinion and agenda, then only the more extreme statements, the ones that create an emotional response, attain acknowledgment and therefore attention. This creates a conflict as two opposing views simultaneously try to shoot each other down while also creating a feedback loop which gives attention to both arguments, for better or worse.
Say I preferred writing with black ink, but my friend preferred writing in blue ink.
I’d write a status supporting the reasons I write with black ink, to which they’d respond with an article breaking down how everything I said was completely wrong and argue that the blue ink is not just a better option, but the only option worth taking.
This creates an emotional reaction to which all black ink users support one another and completely oppose all blue ink supporters, neither side really listens to one another anymore, blah blah blah, you get what I’m talking about, modern political discourse complete!
Okay, but what has any of this got to do with Julius Caesar?
While this kind of behaviour can be seen in many plays as characters must have opposing, distinguishable motives in order to create conflict within a story, the way in which Hytner uses Shakespeare’s language and character creates parallels with today’s political discourse. Of course, there are references such as David Calder’s Caesar sharing similarities with Donald Trump in both his outfit (black suit, red tie) and political propaganda (red hats with his name written on and slogans stating ‘Do this!’ plastered on large pictures) yet Hytner’s directions goes deeper than this.
The play itself follows an important choice as characters take a course of action, one which they profoundly believe to be right, which ultimately has a plethora of unforeseen and awful consequences. Roman society is at a fulcrum point with the metropolitan elite appearing unhappy with a man they all believe has too much power. These sort of themes reverberate particular contemporary political discussions. For instance, Caesar’s funeral scene in which Brutus and Antony attempts to influence the crowd to follow their political agenda seemed as close to the second Hillary – Trump Presidential Debate as to a traditional performance at the Globe. Antony’s speech of course ironically manipulates Brutus’ remarks to act against him and uses repetition, basic language and buzz words.
While the language of the play is of course unchanging, the staging is not and the way in which distinct characters rise and fall amongst a moving, faceless crowd creates a pulsating sensation between those who govern and the governed. These words now live and move in and around, above and amongst, an audience which instinctively creates a physical hierarchy as characters rise and fall around us. This constant transformation of status in position relative to the audience reflects both the sensation of being groundlings at the Globe while also suggested a presence similar to social media as those who sit at the extremities of an argument are given an elevated presence where people speak truthfully, radically and brutally.