Review: Nicholas Hytner's Julius Caesar at The Bridge Theatre
Recognisable images of political strife abound in this contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s great political tragedy
The Bridge Theatre, director Nicholas Hytner’s new home after his well-applauded tenure at the National Theatre, holds 900 people at full capacity, and each of them is important to this textually-accurate production of Shakespeare’s great work on the death of Julius Caesar. Hytner and his talented team chose to bring to the fore the importance of the crowd, both theatrically and politically, and they do this with some striking formal tricks. Finding your seats in this circular auditorium (the play is set in-the-round), the first thing you witness is a great rock concert of pro-Caesar revellers shouting out ironic twists on recognisable slogans: Make Rome Great Again! cry the masses.
And indeed, the crowd is made up of more than actors. You can buy cheap tickets as an audience member to watch the play from the perspective of the plebeians who constitute an integral part of the set. Egged along by the cast, you can see how easily these would-be actors find their feet, shouting praises of Caesar minutes before crying for the coronation of his assassins. And this of course is one of the great insights of the play: how rhetoric, though beautiful, can be duplicitous and whip people up into the frenzy of insurrection.
To countermand the weight of the crowd and to reveal the physical subtleties of the actors’ altercations, Bunny Christie, the set designer, opts for a series of elevating stages which enunciated the play’s divided physical and mental spaces. This is an interesting innovation but, as with many of the other conceits of the production, it dulls the spark of Shakespeare’s fierce writing and gives no space for the tension of the script.
It is regrettable that innovations such as these can fade into novelty, for they are interesting, exciting and they demonstrate the modern applicability of the great playwright’s work. But unfortunately, in a meditation on personal relationships and their obligations, a fiery, loud approach denies the actors a chance to show their subtlety. Constantly shouting at the top of their voices and dashing from one platform to another, the over-acting necessary to contend with the mise-en-scène made this insightful, courageous production something of a failed attempt.
Shakespeare is hard. Because it is the cornerstone of so much of British drama, perhaps directors take it as a given that their actors will be able to deliver the necessary goods, being weaned on the great monologues and soliloquies as so many are. But one of the main takeaways from my night at the Bridge was to never underestimate the difficulty of doing justice to Shakespeare’s work. Altogether, this was a bold and spiriting effort but a challenging and disappointing final product. Not one for the Shakespeare-uninitiated.
Julius Caesar runs until 15th April at The Bridge Theatre, SE1