Opening with a live rock concert and ending with balloons on a realistic barbed-wire-and-bullets warzone – taking in pot-shots at President Trump along the way – it’s clear that Nicholas Hytner’s production of Julius Caesar, being performed until April 15th at The Bridge Theatre, London – broadcast live in cinemas across the country on March 22nd courtesy of National Theatre Live – is nothing like the Shakespeare you were taught at school. It’s an astonishing piece of immersive theatre.
From the very beginning, this new production is on a mission to engage; everything about it is made to be accessible. Shakespearian language aside – which in this case is performed naturally with an emphasis on humour and truthful, relatable emotion – there is absolutely no sign that this production is based on a 420 year old manuscript: every opportunity has been taken to connect with a modern audience, without losing any of the poetry or emotional depth.
It helps that – unlike many Shakespeare tales – Julius Caesar has a relatively straightforward story, packed full of action and drama: Leader to the masses Julius Caesar returns in triumph to Rome. Threatened by his popularity, the educated élite conspire to bring him down – but his eventual assassination brings unintended consequences in the form of civil war across the streets of the capital…
The drive for connection with the audience begins with the staging. A large section of those in attendance are literally part of the action – standing on the stage area, they are revellers at a live rock concert that greets Caesar’s return, they are members of congress at the time of his murder, and they are the rally that assembles at his funeral – with the actors literally performing around, through and amongst them. Such immersive, tangible immediacy with the audience lifts the play, transforming it into a non-stop exhilarating theatrical rollercoaster ride, even for those in the gallery seats or watching the action in their local cinema.
The modern connection continues with the actors themselves: The main cast are all contemporary names drawn from some of the most popular cult shows on television – Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and Doctor Who – with the principle lead being played by Q from the most recent James Bond movies. The casting also takes a modern approach to gender balance, with the traditionally all-male conspirators including a female Cassius (Michelle Fairley) and Casca (Adjoa Andoh), changing the play from being all about masculinity, soldiers and fighting, to one of inequality, justice and standing up for what is right.
Heading the conspiracy against Julius Caesar, the popular-but-approaching-dictatorial establishment figure not a million miles away from Donald Trump, played by 71 year old David Calder, is the eternally youthful – despite approaching 40 – Ben Whishaw. As Brutus, he brings a young-person-sticking-it-to-the-man vibe to the role, albeit a softly-spoken nerd of intellect and good intentions, rather than a rebel without a cause.
Against him, and his solid naïve belief that reason and logic will organise society, stands the powerful and charismatic David Morrisey as Mark Antony, who brings a lot of his previous role as The Governor in The Walking Dead to the fore, putting the emphasis of commanding loyalty from the masses through passion, rhetoric and emotive language, rather than truth.
The production spectacle doesn’t end with the all-star cast either: during scenes not involving audience, the stage literally lifts up from ground level, returning the audience to mere observers to the conspirators’ plans and subsequent consequences. Later, the entire performance space is transformed into a complex and detailed warzone, with a real army vehicle literally being driven onto the set.
Forget any memories or thoughts of Shakespeare being irrelevant or confusing. This production is the opposite – it is current and eloquent. From four centuries past, Shakespeare is sending us a warning about our modern post-truth world: when intellectual discourse ends, when the intelligent descend to direct action, when people being civilised, chaos rules.
I cannot emphasis this strongly enough: You need to see this play. Do this. Do this now.