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