Venue: The Bridge Theatre, London

Production Run: Booking until 15 Apr 2018

Performance Reviewed: Thur 1 Feb 2018

There’s little original thought or startling insight at work when highlighting the extra soupçon of relevance Nichols Hytner imbibes into this latest incarnation of Julius Caesar, now running for a limited season at the director’s joint venture, the Bridge Theatre.

Continuing his penchant for filtering Shakespeare through a more contemporary filter and aesthetic, Caesar is in many ways a more obvious and current candidate for the treatment  than, say, Timon of Athens or even Othello, the most recent Bard offerings from Hytner’s slate. 

Depending on your own personal political bent, you’ll likely see shades of Trump or even Corbyn in how he pitches the titular figure as a political heavyweight winning over the masses with rallies akin to rock concerts and other tools of mass hysteria.

It begins the moment you enter the deceptively versatile arena that is the Bridge’s auditorium. Staged both in the round and - for those who want a more immediate and intense immersion of the Roman and Caesar experience - in promenade, the audience are greeted from the off with flags, propaganda, ‘Caesar’ branded baseball caps and plenty of obtrusive party political posters and banners; ‘Do This’ adorned on badges and images of the main man. 

A distant cousin of Obama’s famous ‘Yes We Can’ slogan, perhaps.

As a four piece rock band tear through the likes of Twisted Sister’s ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ and Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’, and those lucky enough to be in the pits join in the chanting, singing and revelry, the intent is clear, and the execution both immediate and effective.

And Hytner could likely have gotten away with either resting on his laurels with this approach, or similarly coasted in pushing it to the other extremity in crafting something more akin to Oskar Eustis’ infamous Trump lampoonery from last Summer - one that divided critics, audiences and even sponsors over in the States.

Instead, somehow, Hytner seems to have achieved an almost impossible balance. He manages to craft a show that is at once both utterly reverential of the source material, whilst still moulding it with such startling presence and energy that one would be forgiven for thinking it were a new piece of satirical fringe theatre written but yesterday. Likewise, with its audacious, ever-changing staging and bombastic lighting and sound design, it is somehow simultaneously both noisy, heightened and bombastic, yet also almost unbearably intimate and intense.

It’s difficult to decipher exactly which cogs in this crazy machinery of immersive, gripping theatre are most pivotal. Bunny Christie’s design work is an MVP, to be sure, relatively measured and restrained in the crackling disquiet of the first Act, where the innate tension of the play and the remarkable craft of the show’s cast is allowed to shine, before stepping forward front-and-centre to inject a real sense of place, scale and kinetic frenzy to the otherwise usually sedate and talky final third of the show.

Hytner’s instincts as a director are firing on all cylinders, too. Even pushing aside the solid turns he gets from his players across-the-board, Hytner’s masterful grasp of internal rhythm with the Bard’s work keeps the action moving almost relentlessly, and the countless segues seamless and punchy, no mean feat when practically half of the stage is often in flux, moving up and down or changing shape and position as the several hundred people watching are being ushered around into new configurations every few minutes.

But it’s perhaps in its cast where this Caesar truly elevates itself. Michelle Fairley is an incensed, paranoid yet palpably dangerous Cassius, with Fairley charting the character’s journey from impassioned schemer to desperate fugitive with gripping conviction throughout. It’s easy to see the appeal of David Calder’s kindly yet statesmen-like Caesar, even as key sequences such as the seminal senate scene and his murky handling of the naysaying Flavius (Sid Sagar) offering hints to a less wholesome and more egotistical underbelly. David Morrissey expertly sells the didactic ambiguity of Mark Anthony (passionate patriot or ambitious opportunist?) with his sweeping and charged addresses to the gathered masses, whilst Adjoa Andoh pricks scenes aplenty with real comic finesse and wry sassiness as a particularly caustic Casca.

Whilst it seems churlish in such excellent company to single out any one performance - with extra credit given to the team of stagehands and performers who keep the pit action smooth and organic throughout - one of the true standouts is undoubtedly in Ben Whishaw’s Brutus. Arguably the show’s central figure, Whishaw’s nervy yet proper take on the central conspirator as a conflicted, principled intellectual offers up a masterclass in subtle, nuanced yet captivating character work.

There’s also real poetry in how Julius Caesar as a text is not really all that focused on its eponymous ruler, but rather his impact on, and perception by, those around him. It’s just as much a rumination on how a public figure can be deified or demonised by the masses and the company he keeps. And here, in this enthralling production, Hytner channels that perfectly, in a show that lives off of its captivating central turns, but further erupts to life when the pit audience are fully utilised and involved. Be it cheering or jeering at public rallies, passing around Caesar’s bloodied jacket in dismay, or even dropping to the floor as gunfire erupts in a more modernised and charged take on the pivotal assassination, the ‘people’ are arguably one of the most important and often overlooked ingredients in Caesar’s story, yet here they are not only present and accounted for, but kept blisteringly locked in the action.

Hytner's Caesar is a truly contemporary realisation of Shakespeare not just in look and design. So too does it channel the very essence and raison d’etre to the form, function and impact with which his works were always intended; immersing an audience in the shocking, gripping and at times unbearably tense immediacy of live performance to an extent few productions manage, whilst still unearthing and showcasing the innate brilliance and beauty of the source material. Branding Hytner a modern day Shakespeare may be reaching for praise slightly too lofty, but, on the basis of this stunning, electric and utterly unmissable Caesar, it’s difficult to think of a more worthy or exciting steward.

Just be sure to get into that pit.

It’s truly where the mayhem, murder and magic happens.

RATING - ★★★★★

Tickets:  0843 208 1846  Official Website: Click Here

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