March 4, 2018, by Peter Kirwan
Julius Caesar @ The Bridge Theatre
On February 14th 2018, two weeks after the new Bridge Theatre’s Julius Caesar opened, seventeen people were killed at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. As part of the international outcry against gun ownership and violence that followed, numerous visceral, devastating accounts of the survivors’ experience of the attack circulated, along with graphic accounts of other incidents and drills that invited readers and listeners to imagine some approximation of the horror of being present at a shooting. To attend a production in the wake of that tragedy that puts its audience in close proximity to the letting off of guns, and asks its audience to react physically, was a troubling experience.
Nicholas Hytner’s promenade production of Julius Caesar cast a large proportion of its audience as the people of Rome, treated variously as mob, conspirators, bystanders or collateral. At the moment of Caesar’s (David Calder) assassination, Adjoa Andoh’s Casca whipped out her gun and aimed it point blank at the enthroned leader; as the gun went off, the cry went out to ‘get down!’ and most of us in the pit hit the deck. The moment was simultaneously upsetting – to be up so close to gun violence – and anticlimactic; even if one had wanted to flee, intervene or panic, the moment was over before it had barely begun; this audience member, at least, was left with a surge of adrenaline that had nowhere to go.
Hytner’s thrilling promenade staging was exactly that – thrilling – for better and for worse. The production was interested in collective affect, taking the careful control of the orations scene and extending it across the whole play. At times, this was beautifully incisive of populism. The opening saw Abraham Popoola, Kit Young, Fred Fergus and Zachary Hart as what the programme called a ‘street band’ but which manifested as a US-style political rally in Caesar’s support, with a range of sing-along-songs from Oasis’s ‘Rock n’ Roll Star’ to Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’ to the White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’ – the latter an unusual choice given its ubiquitous presence as a Corbynite anthem. Whipping the audience up to sing, clap and cheer, the production (perhaps inadvertently) allowed for a critique of the politics of atmosphere, the ease with which a charismatic performer could manipulate an audience into collective vocalisation of a position they didn’t fully understand, as the audience chanted ‘We’re not gonna take it’ long before being introduced to the political figure whose badges and red baseball caps they had already bought. This was particularly satirised during the orations scene, as A3 photocopies of Caesar passed around the audience to hold up in remembrance were quickly replaced with a sudden and total distribution of red ‘Tyranny is dead’ flyers to support Brutus’s speech. The crowd were expected to change their allegiance as suddenly as the new branding could be passed around; and with Brutus holding the microphone, no opportunity was allowed for dissenting voice.
At other times, however, the emphasis on affect seemed to have little end beyond the sensory experience. The staging was impressively complex, but seemed at times to be primarily used in order to demonstrate the capabilities of the new theatre, with stage blocks rising and descending in the centre of the floor space to create a wide variety of levels and platforms, and necessitating constant movement among the promenade audience. At times, especially near the start, this slowed the action down to a crawl and broke up scenes unnecessarily, while the gradual accumulation of barbed wire, sulfuric debris, ammunition boxes and more atop ever more raised levels during the war scenes did little beyond keeping the audience moving around in the dark and creating a spatial confusion that made those scenes difficult to follow beyond a general sense of the confusion of war. After a certain point, less would have been more, and by the time a life-size armoured car rolled into the auditorium, it was starting to feel to me like the production felt its audience were simply in the way. And at its worst, as when mimicking imagined real-life responses to a shooter in our midst, it felt insensitively naive.
The technical achievement was very impressive, however, and at its best the production used the promenade staging to allow an unusual clarity of stakes to the public scenes and a rare intimacy. The orations scenes were particularly well done. Ben Whishaw’s Brutus stood alone on a platform, the crowd close at his feet, and spoke into a microphone so that his voice resonated and echoed, a combination of power and proximity that set out a position and left no room – bar what was carefully choreographed – for argument. Supported by a host of plants in the crowd, his speech was an effective performance of vulnerability that required David Morrissey’s Antony to do something special. Antony began by using the microphone, but then put it aside to speak without electronic mediation, his unmiked voice promising a commune with the people. While the plants in the audience continued to cry ‘He is!’ in response to Antony’s ‘Brutus is an honourable man’, the voices wavered ; Wendy Kweh, standing next to me as a hooded plebeian, started making quiet, troubled comments to those around her as the will was mentioned, and Brutus’s carefully stage managed speech gave way to a gradual swing in the mood, emphasised further as Antony descended to audience level and personally ushered the audience across to where Caesar’s body lay, placing his hands on people’s shoulders and physically shepherding his now-pliant sheep. Morrissey’s performance of vulnerability only belatedly gave way to his satisfied ‘Let it work’.
Beyond the staging, this was a confident, if not particularly revolutionary, Julius Caesar, which was strongest in its individual characterisations (though these were damaged throughout by appalling sound design that flattened the voices of the miked-up actors). Its evocation of Trump through Caesar’s supporters’ red caps and the evocation of rallies is more or less canonical at this point, but Calder’s performance offered some interesting vulnerability. Caesar was brought back in a wheelchair from the refusing of the coronet, the occasion having seemingly overwhelmed him as he gasped for oxygen; later, he joked with his aides about the pyjamas he was still wearing when summoned to the forum. Morrissey was his energetic friend, first seen in tracksuit joining the street band and then later running in the Lupercal; their relationship was warm and Antony’s grief personal.
Whishaw, the eternal student, was a bookish Brutus, who looked for precedents in a pile of books, and who seemed to be constantly in his study. There was something quite isolated about him; I was a long way away during his scene with Portia, but she seemed to have more impact on him in death than in life, his voice cracking as he reported her death to Michelle Fairley’s Cassius. Whishaw was a man of conscience who seemed initially reluctant but later zealous in his desire to put his theory into practice; with the conviction of his learning, his commitment to the murder was absolute, outstripping Cassius’s own. Fairley was an earnest Cassius in support of Brutus, putting the hard sell on him at a pavement café and taking the young man in hand when bringing the conspirators to his home, whispering in his ear. In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, as Antony made his demands, the conspirators repeatedly appealed to Cassius in alarm at Brutus’s promises, leaving Cassius the responsibility of directly confronting Brutus. The dynamic that developed between them in the play’s final quarter worked well, as Cassius became increasingly frustrated at a Brutus so committed to the cause that he wouldn’t listen to her reason. After he admitted Portia’s death, Cassius hugged him farewell, and Brutus had to prise her fingers off him to be able to leave. Cassius never fully managed to find her own agency in this world, and her sad little suicide was immediately ironised by Popoola’s Trebonius, remarking on the short-sighted woman’s inability to discern before killing himself in companionship. Meanwhile, Fergus’s Lucius had a lovely arc as Brutus’s long-suffering aide, running around to answer his master’s various fluctuating needs, falling asleep while playing guitar, and finally shooting his master cold in the head.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a production of Julius Caesar where the supporting cast were so well delineated, and I enjoyed the small narratives emerging, especially among the conspirators. Casca was bad-ass; withering in her early sarcasm to Brutus and Cassius, abrupt in her dismissal of the other conspirators’ directional knowledge during the ‘Which way is East?’ scene, and fearless as she brought out the gun and shot Caesar from the front, rather than stabbing him from behind; with close-cropped hair and gun-harness around her shoulders, she was by far the most terrifying of the murderers. Mark Penfold was the sickly Caius Ligarius, mocked by Caesar; Hannah Stokely was uncompromising and moving as she pleaded for her brother’s life as Metellus Cimber; Sid Sagar had a fantastically ingratiating moment as Popilius, wishing the conspirators luck in their enterprise. I was most fascinated, however, by Leila Farzad as Decius Brutus. Turning up at Caesar’s home, she listened as Caesar told her he would not come, but then she stood, smiling with raised eyebrows, until he walked towards her, squeezed her hand, and told her he would tell her as he loved her. The tension between her and Kweh’s Calpurnia was icy; as Caesar explained his reason, Calpurnia gathered her robes about her and sat down in anger. Caesar sat beside her, and as Decius offered a fresh interpretation of the dream, she shamelessly ran her hands up and down her body, sexualising the image of Caesar’s fluid-giving body. Immediately after the assassination, Decius was seen sitting on the steps leading up to his throne, sobbing; she didn’t dip her hands in Caesar’s blood, but instead had it rubbed on her – in red handprints on her face – by the other conspirators. There seemed to me to be an implication of a (prior or ongoing) affair, and her complex reactions to events again helped distinguish between the conspirators.
There wasn’t a weak link in the cast, though I found myself struggling to distinguish a political stance; the production’s own performance of crowd control undermined the mechanics of populism but never went far enough to offer a proper critique of that as a mode of politics; perhaps understandably, given how dependent the production was on its own audience behaving in anticipated ways. This was particularly ugly during the beating of Cinna the Poet (Fergus) among the audience; while the audience were kept at bay by members of the street gang, the look-don’t-touch ethos made for uncomfortable passivity. Promenade performance can be a visceral way of inviting audiences to experience embodied responses, but in wanting us to both act and not act (always a problem when trying to condition audiences for this play), the production paradoxically used the promenade audience’s mobility and activity to reinforce how little agency they had.
This was a bold statement for the Bridge’s opening season, and I hope the promenade staging gets another outing. Here, Julius Caesar became an exciting, emotional experience, privileging both the large-scale affect of war and the nuances of individual experience that, particularly in the cases of Brutus and Cassius, personalised the political. But I never want to be asked to perform how I react to a gunshot again.