Mark Antony (David Morrissey) makes a stirring speech at Julius Caesar’s funeral.
The controversial times of Donald Trump’s administration and the #metoo movement have sent a rippling unprecedented wave into the reaches of both society and the arts. Similar to how Orson Welles reflected the rise of 1930s fascism through his classic Mercury theatre production of the play, Nicholas Hytner’s new explosive production of Julius Caesar, the second production of the four months old Bridge Theatre in Tower Bridge, parallels today’s troubled political landscape with urgency and shocking intensity. Hytner, the former artistic director of the National Theatre, and acclaimed stage designer Bunny Christie use promenade spacing within the theatre pit to transform the stall’s audience into a gladiatorial mob, masterfully crafting a dystopian Rome on the brink of collapse and chaos. The opening Trump-esque rally fronted by a loud rip-roaring rock band, with an assortment of blood red banners and red campaign hats on sale, affirms the creative team’s direct political influence.
This production is certainly more of a live event than most previous productions of Shakespeare’s classic roman thriller, and the shift in scenes particularly into the war zone of the second half are sure to shock the audience into submission. The swift and sudden murder of the titular roman emperor (David Calder), and the momentous transition from grief to righteous anger expressed through David Morrissey’s electrifying Mark Antony, served to cautions us that – like real life politics – actions taken can serve to upset the status quo. Ben Whishaw illustriously portrays Marcus Brutus with academic and acerbic timidness, but he is also a man about to cross the point of no return upon being pressed into the reluctant role of leadership of the conspirators. Michelle Fairley grippingly characterizes Caius Cassius as a radical feminist, who is willing to murder for the greater good. But despite her steely resolve and manipulative tactics, she is unable to prevent the tide of war from coming in the aftermath of the assassination.
Her vulnerability and realization of how the events have escalated is expressed with sheer realism during her character’s argument with Brutus in the bunker, which counteracts with Whishaw’s quiet sorrow upon learning of the death of his wife Portia. This makes the inevitability of their death all the more piteous, knowing that they are losing the ensuing battle against Octavius and Antony. Mark Antony in particular befitting the “cutting off the head of the hydra” analogy, confirms himself to be another leader just as corrupt as the last, especially in his stirring speech at Caesar’s funeral, where he eggs the crowd into enacting violence against the conspirators. This is the second production of Julius Caesar that I have seen, and it has proven even more timely in the second year of the tyrannical presidency of Trump. With powerful vigor and through the sheer scope of the production’s intent, the themes expressed back in 1599 now seem a constant call to arms in 2018.
Julius Caesar runs at The Bridge Theatre until 15 April
Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville in their respective roles as James and Mary Tyrone.
Richard Eyre’s sublime production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the final play of the esteemed Eugene O’Neill, is an example of truly sumptuous casting, as well as an evening of both reflection and thought provoking human interest. This new production direct from the Bristol Old Vic is psychological, but also utilizes colour and light symbolically, from the costumes by Rob Howell to the slowly fading sky projected on the glass backdrop, adorning his intimate staging of the Tyrones’ summer household. These elements highlight the fading facade and pretense of the family and the evidential amount of lost opportunities, regrets and skeletons which are festering in their present lives. James Tyrone, a once promising stage actor, lives off of the finances gained from a “vehicle” play which with time had squandered his versatility and talents. The shabbiness of his clothes is enough indication of his strained present financial income. He is oblivious to the pain he has caused his wife Mary and their sons Edmund and Jamie, as a result of his failings as a father and a husband. Jeremy Irons jubilantly returning to the London stage exudes an air of flamboyance and poignancy as James; a Shakespearean actor like the character, this is not unfamiliar territory for Irons. His own sense of commitment to the role shines in the production. It helps accentuate the fragility of his character and the turmoil of his own regrets and demons.
Possibly the central performance of the evening is Lesley Manville as the family matriarch Mary, a recovering morphine addict whose own child-like sense of desperation and loneliness in the middle of a family crisis is both affecting and poignant. The recent Oscar nominee captures with great magnificence a woman on the brink of collapse, and dealing with her own longing for the time when she could have chosen the religious path prior to meeting James. Her final speech at the play’s end, while having seemingly relapsed, illustrates how nothing has changed regarding the family’s problems. They may be stuck forever in a never ending cycle of bitterness and unresolved issues. The younger actors in the production Matthew Beard and Rory Keenan bring their own individual sense of weight and tragedy to their performances as Edmund and Jamie. Edmund the most intellectually driven of the two suffers from tuberculosis, while Jamie, also a once promising actor like his father, seems inclined to drink his sorrows away. Both actors capture the feelings of frustration and jaded resentment towards their father with stark realism.
The power of Eugene O’Neill’s writing is as revelatory as it was in 1956; Richard Eyre’s cerebral stage direction elevates O’Neill’s words to an already timeless and prevailing place on the London stage. There are also welcome flourishes of humour imbued in the cast’s performances to slightly offset the tragic and depressing subject matter. Making great use of its two leads, Eyre’s production is one of West End theatre’s finest of this year, remaining just as profound and powerful as when the play was first written.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night runs at Wyndham’s Theatre until 7 April