‘Julius Caesar’ review

Theatre, Drama
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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Ben Whishaw is a nervy Brutus in Nicholas Hytner's furiously exciting take on Shakespeare's Roman tragedy

This populist production of history’s most popular play about populism casts you as the populace. Nicholas Hytner’s in-the-round take on Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ replaces the stalls with a promenade area in which the audience mills about and fills in as the people of Rome. It kicks off with a live rock band bashing out ‘Seven Nation Army’ and scarcely lets up from there, walloping you around the head with enough dopamine to fell a baby elephant.

After opening his new Bridge Theatre with the so-so ‘Young Marx’, Hytner is back in his element with Shakespeare: his modern dress National Theatre interpretations of the Bard were pretty much all stunners. Nonetheless, there’s a fair amount of risk here, not just because of the immersive elements, but in Hytner taking a gamble on forgoing his usual nuance in favour of something more blaring and filmic.

Caesar (David Calder) is an applause-loving old ham with a natty line in red MAGA-style baseball caps (yours for £4 a go). He is not exactly Donald Trump, but the parallels are pretty apparent and he shares the tangerine tyrant’s desperation for the adulation of the mob.

Opposing him is the reliably excellent Ben Whishaw as a nervy, bookish Brutus. He is, I suppose, a classic liberal intellectual. Terrified of the dictator’s drift towards autocracy, he comes to believe in his naive desperation that the assassination of Caesar will fix the republic. Hytner’s production isn’t subtle but it’s not dumb, and is very good on the impossibility of combatting populists with reasoned argument: when Caesar is struck down by a heavy-hearted Brutus, David Morrissey’s bluff, dissembling Mark Antony simply steps into his place. Whishaw’s unworldly Brutus has completely failed to comprehend that another power-hungry leader would simply step into the vacuum left by Caesar’s death.

Nonetheless, Hytner doesn’t labour the lecturing in a production that for the most part unfolds like a chic, glossy spy thriller, contrasting Caesar’s brash rule with the irresistible gathering momentum of the conspiracy against him, headed by the reluctant Brutus and Michelle Fairley’s flinty Cassius. And it’s all tremendously gripping. Or at least it was standing up – I can’t speak for how it looks from the seats – as we’re hustled around Bunny Christie’s spare, flexible set by ‘security’.

Truth be told, the thrillerish aesthetic slightly founders in the final half hour, when the dogs of war are let slip and the conspirators enter a slightly underwhelming all-out confrontation with Mark Antony. But this isn’t uncommon in productions of this play, and Hytner keeps it all barrelling along at such a pace that you barely notice a drop-off as it whizzes by with all the sickening lurch of twenty-first century politics.

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