*Please be advised this article contains explicit information about the plot and staging of both Julius Caesar, the play, and the specific production at the Bridge Theatre in London, which runs until mid-April 2018.*
Liberty! Freedom! Fascism! Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre, London (2018)
In June 2016, the United Kingdom was led astray by people who would say anything for their own political advancement. Immediately post-Brexit, the lies –from the side of a bus, from online campaigns, from the very mouths of politicians – became clear and the mood of the country for the near future was set. Divided, yes, with many people frustrated and hopeless, another group determined and hopeful, most everyone angry either way. Much of the press has become apoplectic, certain papers branding every man, woman and child who speaks out against Brexit a saboteur, a traitor to kin and crown and country.
In November 2016, the United States of America elected to their highest office a man deeply unqualified, a man with a history of sexual assault and misogyny, a man capitalising on another divided nation by exploiting the worst instincts of many of that nation’s peoples: racism, chiefly, with a healthy dose of Hillary-fuelled sexism, but also homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, and anti-intellectualism, under the guise of supposed anti-establishment sentiment. This man, a rich businessman, despite being an archetype of that establishment, ran a campaign to drain the swamp and, confused or bigoted, Americans responded.
In the summer of 2017, the Public Theater in New York City made international headlines after a production of Julius Caesar depicting a Trump-like Caesar was protested against, after death-threats, after Trump’s voters felt as though a direct challenge had been made – on American soil! – against his life, and so against their democracy. During the preview performances of this show's run, comedian Kathy Griffin also made headlines for a tweet depicting Trump’s severed head, bloody, dangling from Griffin’s fist by his signature hair – the same hair, incidentally, that led to many of the Trump comparisons for the Public Theater’s production. Griffin was fired from CNN, criticised by many (including Melania Trump), and issued an apology shortly afterwards. Chelsea Clinton, of all people, even tweeted her disgust, making clear that “it is never funny to joke about killing a president”. Perhaps it is not funny – but what if it’s important to think about? Surely the Public Theater in contrast were not making light of the situation, but asking questions about what happens when the mood of a people drives assassinations, and what the fallout from that could be. Those who accused the Public Theater of “advocating” for Trump’s assassination clearly know little about the plot of Julius Caesar following the assassination. (Spoiler: it ends badly for the conspirators and, in many ways, for all of Rome.)
The Public Theater was not the only company to stage Caesar in the post-Brexit, post-Trump landscape. The Royal Shakespeare Company did so in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 2017, in period-dress togas, avoiding any Trump-like associations while still referencing him by name (and by photo) in their programmes for the show. The politics of the show felt more general, a reflection on power and oration in our “Post-Truth” society. Director Angus Jackson used the theatre’s houselights extensively to include the audience, to draw them in and make them complicit; yet he also had a group of some dozen or so supernumerary actors comprising the Roman mob at various points, especially for Caesar’s funeral, swinging foolishly from one side to another as they heard what they wanted to from both sides, ultimately motivated by James Corrigan’s Marc Anthony, reading Caesar’s will. Later, he turns to the audience, showing the will to be merely a blank prop. The fickle people can be laughed at by an audience let in on the joke. We are no fools to be led astray!
Yet Stratford-Upon-Avon, a microcosm of the UK, voted in favour of Brexit 52:48. So who is Angus Jackson fooling, or flattering? Of the local audience his production was playing to most days, many were led astray, especially among the elderly populace, while many are simply Conservative through-and-through, clearly ignorant or apathetic to how their local economy depends on global tourism. But in this way, as in the period-dress, Jackson avoided anything too controversial in his staging. People could take from the production what they wished to: it is no coincidence that the #TeamBrutus and #TeamCaesar marketing campaign (somewhat irrelevant given Caesar is not really in any real political contention against Brutus), despite initially evoking the Twilight fandom’s “Team Edward” and “Team Jacob” divide, also suggested the new age of democracy that we live in, where we are voting for people instead of parties. Caesar and Brutus are not aligned with any political party, and so spectators of the show and/or its advertising could make the associations they chose to. Better than being spoon-fed, perhaps, but unavoidably a cop-out.
All of this seems to build, quite directly, to the Bridge Theatre’s 2018 production of Julius Caesar, directed by veteran director and Artistic Director of the Bride Theatre, Nicholas Hytner. The second-ever show at this new landmark London theatre, it has been met with acclaim and mostly positive reviews, especially with regards to “The Pit”, the 300-person standing area that sets the stage for this unique in-the-round promenade production. The truth is that this production, full of great acting from the complete cast and exciting (read: terrifying) staging, excels because of the crazy world we have been living in since 2016, because of how people have responded (or failed to respond) to the issues of Brexit, Trump, nationalism, populism, fascism… the list of what defines our political present goes on. And this production makes the very most of our troubled times.
As you enter The Pit you are met with fun, rally-like music from a live band, and people selling drinks and snacks from carts, as well as pro-Caesar merchandise, complete with the catchphrase “Do This!” and a hat designed to replicate the famous “Make America Great Again” hat. The mood quickly sours from there. The fun and freedom that this staging allows becomes increasingly infringed upon, as the stage moves and locations shift, as characters come and go through the throng, as private spaces are established and the audience are brought uncomfortably close to the conspirators’ discussions. The stage crew as well as the cast instruct people firmly, moving them out of the way, often verging on unpleasantness. You are free to move as you like unless you are told otherwise.
Caesar’s arrival at the Senate-house is palpable in The Pit, the audience is left to wonder: how will they stage this in relation to our presence? What will become of us, the poor complicit groundlings? It’s all over quite quickly: shots are fired and a cry comes from the stage crew for everybody to get down. When Caesar is finally slumped, dead, and the conspirators, the crowd, and the crew are trying to catch their breath, conflicting information is given: some say to stand and evacuate, others say to stay crouched. Like a twitching mass, the audience hovers between the two states until things are (relatively) calm again. We see the conspirators reacting in real time, with Leila Farzad’s Decius Brutus proving surprisingly sympathetic, a nervous wreck after killing Caesar (who, elsewhere, is implied to be somewhat intimate with Decius). She is instantly filled with overwhelming horror at what she has been involved in. Whether or not we can talk about assassinating an elected leader is one thing; to see those directly involved weighing up the consequences themselves after the fact is another. It is clear that the case is hard-made for assassination; it is, in itself, an attack on freedom and democracy and will only breed further attacks, until liberty and freedom are beset on all sides by tyranny – the production is building to this.
Shouts and prodding are once again used by cast and crew to move the audience towards (and through) the funeral, individual characters taking on the role of director by constantly focalising attention; where the RSC used their supernumerary mob and houselights, the Bridge Theatre uses movement and space to convey changing tides, still relying on the relationship between cast and audience, and more even more than that on Shakespeare’s words themselves, to do most of the work. Ben Whishaw is obviously the sort of wise and brooding academic-Brutus that Alex Waldmann fell short of in the RSC’s production, and so his funeral speech does have some gravitas to it, measured and persuasive. Further, we see the mostly-female conspirators surrounding him (another contrast from the RSC’s predominantly white male cast), including Adjoa Andoh's fiery Casca and Michelle Fairley’s bold and bitter Cassius, who had been openly denigrated by David Calder’s misogynistic Caesar. But David Morrissey’s Marc Anthony adequately exposes the hypocrisy and immorality of the assassination and its motivations, aside from Caesar's flaws, thus shifting public perception.
The next moment of the production is life-changing. The short scene that ends the third act, the often inconsequential murder of Cinna the Poet (mistaken for Cinna the Conspirator) becomes the hinge upon which the two halves of the production rest. Pandemonium befalls The Pit: one crew member tells you to move back while another crew member behind you shouts to move forward, so that you are oscillating back and forth in a short space, stepping on your own feet and those of your fellow pit-dwellers; the space is dark, with occasional strobe effects and the overwhelming sound of shelling. The space is a war-zone and the killing of Cinna the Poet is a brutal and ultimate manifestation of the violence and chaos that has seeped into the space and an omen of the anarchy that is to come, the cost of war on the average citizen – and most audience members will miss seeing it entirely, either because of their position or because they are being jostled so much they’ve been literally turned around. (Anecdotally, I thought I had been hopelessly separated from my friend in the audience – it turns out she was next to me the whole time.)
This is immersive theatre, promenade theatre, sure. But some are complaining about the intensity, claiming that the production does not like the people in The Pit, and that the Bridge Theatre has in many ways failed its audience. But such complaints are reductive and miss the point: this is what happens when fascism is allowed to creep in. It's insidious but it's happening. Say goodbye to your “safe spaces”, to the illusion of freedom, to the things you thought you were getting on the ticket. You are a victim, held at the mercy of the machine. This is the fascist state and you are nothing more than a cog, collateral. The production must take the risk of alienating the audience completely in order to send that warning. This is a warning that says we have been here, as a species, and we keep on ending up back here, in these political struggles and these unsettling environments. And it is the everyday people, the voiceless ones, who suffer most, watching the World Stage (or the National Stage, or the Local Stage for that matter), perhaps entertained at first, and slowly horrified, still powerless to stop it. Perhaps an audience member could actually stop it, but to do so would be to destroy the theatre of it, something we are conditioned against, as we are conditioned to refrain from openly objecting to the state, as we are told by our press that dissent is treason, that questions are dangerous. We see all the consequences play out over the final forty minutes of the production, as we are taken deeper into the warzone that has escalated before our very eyes, the space unrecognisable at the end, littered by the dead. It is up to the people of The Pit to move past it.
This is a necessary production and resonates with its audience, especially its younger audiences, because it taps into the rage and hopelessness of today’s youth, who voted overwhelmingly against Brexit, who are overwhelmingly against such figures as Trump and Farage and Le Pen, a generation that understands the paradoxes of tolerance: that we must tolerate most everything except intolerance. This is a generation that openly fears an apocalyptic outcome to the rash idiocy of some older people who have forgotten the history they studied many years ago, who do not think about the future in the same time-frame as the young do. These are young people who understand that we must talk about these issues, that we must explore them, that we must be wary of becoming the nation represented in the Cinna the Poet scene: fractured, blind, cannibalistic, and primed to implode. Aware that we must open our eyes to the alarming way that a fascist state will render us worthless, helpless, alone.
You can book tickets to see this violently urgent production until April 15 here. NT Live is live-broadcasting this production to cinemas from March 22 - more info here.
*My initial micro-review, posted online after the performance on 25 January 2018, is as follows: “Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre is urgent and intense and compelling and everything that modern productions of Shakespeare should be. Go watch it from The Pit if you dare. And be amazed… it was the best Shakespeare I have ever seen. With masterful acting from Ben Whishaw (*swoon*), Wendy Kweh, David Calder, David Morrissey, Adjoa Andoh, and above all Michelle Fairley as the greatest, most refreshing Cassius in ages. Special mentions to Adjoa Andoh for a brutal, hilarious, imposing Casca and Leila Farzad as a complex and profoundly sympathetic Decius Brutus. Not a single member of the cast performed to a lesser standard than their star leads. Aside from wonderful performances and delivery of the verse, the production featured dynamic sound and music, lighting, and all-around stage design, expertly directed by Nicholas Hytner. And being in The Pit, as anxiety-inducing and ruthless as it was, made for the most compelling two hours, being jostled and surprised constantly, shifted around the space and brought into direct complicity with all of the action. Ultimately it was the Cinna the Poet scene that stuck in my mind the most, the moment at which I felt most hopelessly overwhelmed by the crazy world of the production...”*