Tweetingit: 5* Just witnessed a stroke of genius. A timeless story of power that never dates. In the words of Caesar “Do this!”
Friends, Romans, fellow countrymen, lend me your ears! So very apt, I felt obliged to quote Mark Antony in this handsome production of Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre. A new kid on the block always has something to prove, and this new venue throws the gauntlet down to West End theatres. Opened in late 2017 at a cost of £12 million, it can boast the most innovative and adaptable performance area. The theatre itself has a bright facade with the ‘I’ leaning nonchalantly against the ‘D’ in its signage. The foyer is spacious and brightly lit which provides a welcoming glow. The first innovation was driven more by necessity as we noted the requirement to surrender all coats and bags prior to entry. It was a sad, though timely, reminder of the times in which we live. Strangely, I felt able to relax more easily as there were no nagging doubts about security.
Upon entry, I was immediately struck by the feel of a Roman amphitheatre. Tiered seating enclosed the performance area and I wondered exactly where the stage was? Red baseball caps emblazoned with Julius Caesar were on sale; henchmen dutifully waved red flags and distributed fliers urging the people to ‘do this!’. The feel of a political rally had the desired effect as a rising platform revealed a four-piece street band. Pleasingly reminiscent of the Clash they knocked out decent versions of rock ‘n’ roll star and eye of the tiger. Halfway through the latter Mark Antony (David Morrissey) appeared in a tracksuit! He warmed the audience up with chants of Caesar, Caesar, Caesar!!…we were fist pumping and nodding our heads in no time. Opting for tickets in the pit meant we got up close and personal to the action. It was apparent that pit occupants were unpaid extras in the production – yes, we were the good people of Rome, the plebeian masses, the rabble!? My friends and I soon got into character as we rushed towards various platforms as they appeared.
Warm up duly completed, the lights dimmed in preparation for the entry of Caesar. Marshals pushed their way through parting the crowd like the red sea. Caesar (David Calder) entered, red baseball cap and leather jacket milking the adulation. Caesar obviously recognised star quality as he shook my hand on the way past! The reference points were blatantly obvious, as we easily find modern equivalents in the art of power play (Trump, Assad and Putin to name but three?). The story of Caesar has, over the years become a euphemism for dictatorship or absolute rule; but can just as easily be applied to parliamentary democracy. Leadership corrupts and invites competition; the promise of power feeds ambition with alliances made and broken on a whim. This is what makes Julius Caesar one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays; it projects a recurring theme that will never grow old.
The portrayal of key passages in the play is absolutely riveting as the audience became totally engrossed in the story (I barely noticed when a lady trod on my foot!). The slow-burning conspiracy between Brutus (Ben Whishaw) and Cassius (Michelle Fairley) builds to the climactic assassination and bloody civil war that ultimately followed. The set was brilliantly constructed with haunting incidental music complementing the subtle use of lighting and frighteningly authentic sound effects. Thankfully, togas and sandals were abandoned in favour of business suits and combat gear. Similarly, daggers were replaced with pistols as the weapon of choice in the assassination.
The cast were magnificent in every respect and worked liked a perfectly oiled machine; happily mingling with the crowd when required, and then burning an indelible image on stage facing off one-to-one. An important element of the performance was the supporting marshals, who acted as centurions and scene shifters when required. With such familiar actors from film and television, it’s always fascinating to see how they work in a front of a live audience. To see the likes of David Calder, Ben Wishaw, David Morrissey and Michelle Fairley at the top of their game was an absolute privilege.
Author: William Shakespeare
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Music: Nick Powell
Producer: Bridge Theatre
Box Office: 0333 320 0051
Booking Link: https://bridgetheatre.co.uk/performances/?event=440
Booking until: 15 April 2018