You could be forgiven for thinking you have entered the wrong building. Shakespeare’s play may be set in ancient Rome, but the first sight and sound to greet its audience here is of a rock band pumping out a White Stripes track. Look again, and you will see hawkers selling baseball caps; and again, that the word Caesar has been emblazoned where normally there might the letters NY – or the name Trump.
This is the second production at Nicholas Hytner’s new Bridge Theatre. The former National Theatre artistic director opened the bespoke built building in fine style with Young Marx, a Richard Bean and Clive Coleman co-written knockabout comedy about the father of socialism’s days of cavorting and conspiring in pre (Russian) revolution London.
Hytner’s promenade, modern-dress production of two uninterrupted hours couldn’t be more different. For a start, the auditorium has been reconfigured so that those members of the audience who are standing also find themselves unwittingly cast as Rome’s mob. And the effect is somewhat flattering. It is our ears that David Morrissey’s underpowered but then potent Mark Antony implores us to lend.
Sections of the floor rise and fall into plinths and platforms. “Security” staff shepherd us around these mini earthquakes. But it’s the audience’s proximity to the cast that lends this production its immediacy.
And much as I hate for a review to be sullied with a note that could be mistaken for sycophancy, it’s a bit of a privilege to be this up close and personal to an actor of the quality of Ben Whishaw, and in this case witness the steady transition of his Brutus from cautious skeptic to determined war leader.
His reluctance to be influenced by firebrand Cassius is saturated with patient good humour, yet tinged with temptation for the arguments being put. Cassius is a woman here, played by Game of Thrones star Michelle Fairley with a coiled intensity. In fact, most of the conspirators are female. And so because David Calder’s big white fat-cat of a leader has more than a tinge of old-school misogyny about him, there is a hint 21st-century gender politics about this revolution.
The war scenes are loud in a flash-bang kind of way. And then something like ash falls onto our heads. We stand, simultaneously bored and deafened by the cacophony. But where this production scores is in its use of the promenade audience. When the poet Cinna is turned on by Rome’s mob, the assault barrels through the crowd with what feels like genuine disorder. People are both watching and avoiding the violence in exactly the way they would on real streets. Those sitting in the colosseum-like tiers may be comforted by the distance between them and Rome’s proletariate. But those of us on the ground felt a surge mob adrenaline as the murderous chaos unfolded.
With the Bridge’s inaugural production, I had only one negative observation about this theatre, which is sited on a redeveloped south bank stretch of the Thames and almost within touching distance of one of the world’s great city sights, Tower Bridge (hence the name). With one of London’s poshest restaurant’s next door, the venue has the feel of a comfortable place that has been built primarily for the comfortably off.
But the triumph of this show is that it takes its audience – this one, much younger than the retirees I saw at one of the last production’s matinees – and cajoles, pushes and bullies them out of their comfort zone. The result is a Julius Caesar that feels urgent, modern and risky.