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Julius Caesar at The Bridge Theatre

Ben Whishaw, Michelle Fairley, David Calder and David Morrissey take to London’s newest stage.

The Bridge Theatre in Southwark opened in winter 2017 and now proudly calls itself "the first wholly new theatre of scale to be added to London’s commercial theatre sector in 80 years." It is a pleasant novelty for London audiences to discover a new permanent theatre space – especially one so large, modern, and undeniably beautiful. The atrium is spacious and striking, the auditorium comfortable, adaptable and welcoming. For their second production ever, The Bridge stages Shakespeare’s tragedy of politics, idealism and betrayal, Julius Caesar.

Beginning with what looks like a modern political rally – complete with flag-waving, a live rock band and red baseball caps – Nicholas Hytner’s staging of Julius Caesar seems set to draw out political parallels between Shakespeare’s Rome and our modern world. Caesar’s first appearance, wearing a red cap and a leather jacket, waving to the cheering crowds, is explicit in evoking Trump. It awakens the audience to many of the play’s themes: populism, power, and how we judge our leaders for their private and public behaviour. However, as soon as these parallels have become explicit, the production steps back from them, taking its cue from Shakespeare’s rich and nuanced characters rather than distorting the play into a direct analogy for contemporary politics. For the rest of the play, Caesar is presented more like a Russian military leader than an American politician. There are no easy points to be scored in a story that asks difficult questions about responsibility, violence and power.

Ben Whishaw (Brutus) and Michelle Fairley (Cassius) in Julius Caesar, (c) Manuel Harlan

The Bridge has assembled a strong cast for this production, combining big names with solid Shakespearean experience. Accomplished classically trained actor David Calder plays Caesar, Cassius is portrayed by Michelle Fairley (best known for her stint as Caitlin Stark in Game of Thrones) while The Walking Dead’s David Morrissey is Mark Antony. Ben Whishaw plays Brutus as a naive scholar obsessed with abstract ideals of honour and liberty, whose idealism cannot sustain him once he has dirtied his hands through bloody action. He believes that if he puts aside his own personal feelings and acts based on virtuous convictions he can commit a murder that is just and honourable. Instead, he finds himself sullied and broken by the act. His transformation from fastidious academic to anxious soldier is mirrored by the gradual progression of the set from pristine, unreal minimalism to a dirty, crowded and confused battlefield. As the conspirators’ supposedly lofty ideals and decisive actions are dragged out into prolonged warfare, the set becomes a complex, messy and dangerous place.

David Calder (Caesar) in Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre, (c) Manuel Harlan

The Bridge’s smoothly versatile stage comes to the front in this performance, with large blocks of floor silently moving and shifting to create a spectrum of adaptable spaces. The theatre is in the round, with tiers of seating around a large central space that is both the stage and the pit for standing audiences. The experience for the standing audience members in Julius Caesar is as an immersive part of the show, being ushered around to form part of the set and to give a sense of depth and reality to the play’s crowd scenes. They become the ‘people’ of Rome; the masses who love and hero-worship Caesar as well as the citizens whose rights and freedoms Brutus thinks he is protecting by plotting the ruler’s downfall. Mark Antony’s famous “friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” speech is immediate and direct, stirring the Roman mob up to revenge and violence. The audience find themselves caught up in this crowd, and faced with the same decision whether to side with Caesar or with Brutus? In the play, Mark Antony’s passion and rhetoric swing the crowd to his side, but the audience is left to make their own minds up. Is violence justified in the name of liberty? Is it right to sacrifice the life of an individual – even someone you love and admire – for the greater good? And, with popular opinion widely vacillating, how can we know what the greater good is?

Julius Caesar is at the Bridge Theatre until 15 April 2018.

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