Before the first lines of Julius Caesar have been delivered in the production currently running at London’s Bridge Theatre, you know that the play has been transposed to a very contemporary setting. The Roman feast of Lupercal here becomes a political rally, as Caesar baseball caps and t-shirts are offered for sale while a band storms through ‘Seven Nation Army’ and the populace (in this case comprised of audience members with ‘mob’ tickets) sing along. When the tribunes Flavius and Marullus silence the band and tell the crowd to go home the mood of discontent is a palpable warning of things to come. A crowd inclined to celebrate its hero’s return can swiftly become a lynch mob seeking vengeance for his assassination.
With the rest of the audience seated in the round, looking down on the Roman mob, this production reminds you how volatile that crowd can be. It parts like a sea to allow characters to pass through and take the central stage, closing back in to better see and hear what is being said. In the crucial scene where Brutus gives the assembled people his reasons for Caesar’s death only to give the microphone (literally, in this case) to Mark Antony for the funeral oration, the shift in sympathy and support is seen and heard. As his speech progresses, David Morrissey’s Antony dispenses with the PA system of the Roman forum, speaking plainly and emotionally of his friend’s virtues while skewering the reputations of the ‘honourable men’ who killed him. By the time he produces Caesar’s will and tells the crowd that he “must not read it” for fear that knowing the dead Caesar’s love for them would make the ordinary Roman people ‘mad’ their ‘ears’ are not lent to him, as his famous line asks, but are wholly his, for whatever end he wishes to use them and their owners.
Julius Caesar has always been a play about the exercise of power, but in this production’s post-truth age of ‘alternative facts’ its relevance seems undoubted. At the Bridge, modernisation opens up new areas of emphasis. The baseball caps, “Do This!” t-shirts, and badges sported by the supporters of David Calder’s Caesar are on sale in the theatre lobby, ready to be worn on the streets outside. Ben Whishaw’s bookish Brutus ponders the case for assassination sitting at a desk piled high with volumes on more modern dictators. We never see Caesar with a phone (although other aspects of his wardrobe may look familiar) but it’s hard not to think that in this Rome ‘social media’ means more than simply meeting the crowds in the forum. At times these modern transpositions are a little strained. When Caesar meets his bloody end it comes not with daggers but with handguns: undoubtedly a modern death but lacking, perhaps, the terrible physical closeness of the killing that the conspirators turn into a sign of their courage and that Antony convinces the crowd is the measure of their betrayal.
Running for two hours without an interval, this production gives the play the momentum of a thriller, but also makes clear how swiftly in Shakespeare’s version of the events the assassination paves the way for the civil war that follows. The nature of Shakespeare’s history plays is often their ability to compress time for dramatic advantage, but in removing the interval the audience sees even more clearly that the inevitable consequence of Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral is the ‘flight’ of the conspirators from Rome, the establishment of rival armies, and the decisive showdown of the war that ends at Philippi.
Whereas the opening scenes of the play use the ‘mob’ as the citizens of Rome, the later ones require them to stand uneasily around in a series of bunkers and battlefields. Whishaw’s Brutus and Michelle Fairley’s Cassius argue while explosions are heard outside their command post. Plaster falls from the ceiling with each shell that goes off as wounded soldiers are hastily triaged around them. It is a long way from the study/lounge in which Brutus met the conspirators and joined them, and a measure of how ill-adapted the ‘honourable men’ are for the reality that their actions have induced.
In contrast, Antony and Octavius – their rivalry contained for the time being as the pretence of a Triumvirate with the inconsequential Lepidus obscures the real scope of their ambition – appear at the head of a well-drilled, well-equipped army. The ending is not in doubt and the people who gathered to cheer Caesar and stayed to mourn him and swear vengeance on his killers now stand around to survey a tableau of dead bodies. As Antony stands and delivers his final lines on Brutus, able to distinguish between Brutus’ misled patriotism and the ambition of all those around him now that his opponent is safely dead, Kit Young’s Octavius climbs on to plinth and salutes the crowd below. Balloons fall from the ceiling as the play ends in the transition from a threatened (if flawed) democracy to the incipient autocracy that Caesar’s death was supposed to prevent and ended up accelerating. Make Rome Great Again.
Julius Caesar runs at the Bridge Theatre, London, until 15th April. For more information see: https://bridgetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/julius-caesar/