The Bridge Theatre, a brand new theatre next to Tower Bridge run by former National Theatre artistic director Nicholas Hytner, announced its inaugural Shakespeare production several months ago. A promenade production of Julius Caesar was planned, with tickets available as part of the mob, at the heart of the action, a bit like the Globe’s pit. I take issue with the ‘promenade’ description – to me, that implies moving from location to location. ‘Immersive’, to me, would be a better term, and immersive it certainly is.
Get there early to fully experience the atmosphere. Ushers walk around the pit, selling refreshments, badges and red baseball caps suspiciously similar to those seen on Donald Trump. On a raised platform, a band plays: The White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’, a rock version of Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’. The performance slides seamlessly into the beginning of the play.
This is a modern Caesar, exhilarating and immediate. The immersive aspect is not a gimmick, but an integral part of the play. Raised platforms change the shape of the stage while ushers (actors?) herd the mob away from the rising shapes. The immensely populist Caesar (a superb David Calder) walks among the people, shaking hands. (Contrast this with Brutus, who only stoops to sign a copy of one of his books for a fan). At Caesar’s assassination, the crowd is told to get down, against the possibility of further gunfire; as the action descends into war, the mob is herded aside as casualties are rushed past and the sound of explosives is heard overhead. Being part of the changeable mob makes Mark Antony’s famous speech (performed powerfully by David Morrissey) even more impactful. Holding up a black and white picture of Caesar, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment.
All this and I haven’t even mentioned the conspirators yet. I’m convinced that Ben Wishaw is one of our greatest actors and his performance as Brutus only cemented my opinion. I wouldn’t immediately have imagined him as Brutus but he is superb: intelligent, an intellectual, genuinely concerned for the state of Rome but susceptible to flattery, and happier writing political theory than acting out revolutions. Michelle Fairley is an excellent Cassius, angry and determined to end tyranny, while Adjoa Andoh is a memorable Casca. More than in any other production I’ve seen, the conspirators – who too often become a faceless mass – are individually drawn. As Octavius Caesar, Kit Young makes an impact as the young leader, his triumph showing how the cycle of populism goes on and on.
This is without a doubt one of the best Julius Caesars I have ever seen – one of the best Shakespeares I have ever seen. I’m sure I will still be thinking about it for months to come.