Following a fairly conventional maiden production in Young Marx, the Bridge Theatre lays down a statement of intent with this bold, nerve-shredding staging of Julius Caesar.
The nascent institution, co-founded by former National Theatre artistic director Nicholas Hytner, makes use of its flexible, modular design with a “promenade” set-up that plonks two thirds of the audience in a central pit alongside the actors.
It kicks off with a campaign rally, where a band performs punk covers of Rock ‘n’ Roll Star and Seven Nation Army. And if you’re part of the promenade, you’re not watching the rally – you are the rally. Merch salesmen mill around you flogging red “Caesar” caps (£4) and hot nuts (£2), while others brandish banners bearing the slogan “Do This!” At one point Mark Anthony rocks up on stage wearing a tracksuit with his name on the back and bounces along to the music like a historical Bez.
It’s a brilliant conceit, the gig-like atmosphere capturing the excitement and mild sense of danger that comes with being part of a mob. When the action starts, plinths rise from the ground, actors push through the crowd, lights cut out, explosions shake the auditorium. All the while Caesar’s security team corrals the audience out of harm’s way, pushing and yelling until they’re in the right place. It’s all thoroughly modern.
Every production of Julius Caesar invites parallels with the politics of the day – if it were 1974 you’d see Nixon up there, the following decade Reagan or Thatcher. Hytner leans gleefully into this, with the red caps, boorish supporters and ageing demagogue all depressingly familiar (not quite so familiar as a production staged in New York last year, whose casting of a perma-tanned Caesar led to the team receiving death threats).
David Calder is fantastic as the befuddled old dictator, playing him not as an evil man, but a vain and confused one, his narcissism blinding him to his fate. You’re not sad to see him go, but his assassination – using guns instead of daggers in a beautifully choreographed sequence – still feels terribly wrong.
Shakespeare’s play, first performed in 1599, has been a template for political thrillers ever since, and there’s a nice symmetry to how heavily the first half borrows from shows like House of Cards, with clandestine liaisons at bus-stops and terribly middle-class meetings in the studies of the political elite. Ben Whishaw is likeable as the bookish, bespectacled Brutus, the very definition of the out-of-touch politician, although his delivery offers few surprises.
The second half (structurally; there’s no interval) is staged as an out-and-out war drama, with fatigue-clad revolutionaries ducking under strafing gunfire while mortar shells rain in the distance.
Some of the nuance is inevitably lost amid the cacophony, and the play is stripped to its bare bones at just two hours, but it has the uncomplicated thrill of a great prestige TV drama.