The Bridge Theatre
“Friends, Romans, Countrymen” is addressed to the integral audience at the new Bridge Theatre in London in this promenade production of Julius Caesar. It is another of Sir Nicholas Hynter’s modern Shakespeare masterpieces, and if anyone can appropriately change the setting of a timeless Shakespeare play, it is he. The production is fraught with risks, the biggest of these being that 400 members of the audience are part of the play, the crowd which moves around to where the action is taking place.
The audience is an essential part of this play and we are used to great effect. This may have been a risk, but the production is so wonderful that the audience are putty in the hands of the actors from the rock concert at the start – what a way to involve people and make everyone feel safe and included. This enjoyable fifteen or so minutes lulls the slightly on-edge audience into a false sense of security, shattered when the murmurs about the plotted murder begin. This atmosphere has to be micro-managed by the excellent ensemble at all points. This maintains the balance between feeling safe and at a correct distance from the action and the crowd mentality at key points, such as during Mark Antony’s speech. Due to this careful planning some members of the audience became so involved at certain points that it was hard to distinguish between them and the actors, and this is reflected in enthusiasm for the show that has been buzzing around the West End community.
Placing Shakespeare in different periods comes with its fair share of problems, but this production seems to float over these with ease because of its simplicity. Every aspect has been thought through, and means that the text has retained its mysterious Shakespearean beauty but is still the clearest Shakespeare play I have ever seen. Hytner had clearly manipulated the words with a certain degree of elegance and charm, with some lines which might appear mundane becoming hilarious within the context. The ability to amuse an audience amidst murder and suicide is an art, and is another factor that makes this production utterly brilliant.
There are some always some issues with a reinterpretation, as every element has to be re-thought. Of course, when entering a theatre, we are encouraged, even required, to suspend belief and yet there were some aspects that didn’t quite link together. Take the death of Caesar, which is traditionally portrayed as a stabbing, but here is a shooting. The fact that Caesar utters those immortal words before he dies: “Et tu, Brute?” makes more sense following a stabbing than repeated gun shots that would most probably kill instantly. With pistols there is not the same sense of collective murder.
The casting is exceptional, and there wasn’t a weak member among a fine group of actors. There were some interesting and potentially risky decisions taken, such as making Brutus (a brilliant Ben Whishaw) a bookish, mysterious character, and to gender-swap both Cassius and Casca. This worked because one could hardly notice the device. References to them in the text changed to her and she, but the characters were still the same. This brought a more balanced feel to the play and highlighted that it was only the structure of the society of ancient Rome which prevented the women from being as forceful as the men. This is portrayed through Cassius, the driving force of the assassination plot, being a woman.
However, despite the positives of this production, it has consistently received four stars rather than the maximum possible five in reviews, and there are some reasons why it is not perfect. Two hours with no interval required quite significant cuts to the text, but the problem lies in where these cuts were made. Portia, the troubled wife of Brutus, is given only about five minutes of stage time, which leads us to be somewhat confused when it is reported later in the play that she has killed herself. The cuts were welcome for the standers, but because of this we missed some key subplots which make the play one of the greats. Having said that, the fact that there was no interval was certainly a positive as it added to the intensity – the feeling of no escape until it’s all over.
Another slight drawback was the use of over-dramatic music when the silence of the audience’s complete attention would have been more effective for some of the powerful moments. At times the sound could become all-encompassing and detract from the striking points. However, the use of the microphone during Mark Antony’s speech was particularly forceful, as he started with it but then abandoned the aid to bring his words down to the masses. This is arguably the most difficult element of this play when it comes to adapting it to promenade theatre, but Hytner manages to infuse the sense of the crowd mentality and how the tables can turn so drastically within a few minutes - even when that crowd is a paying audience.
As well as being a fresh and welcome reinterpretation of the text, this production holds a mirror up to our modern society with enough subtlety to explore themes such as revolution and terrorism. Being part of this audience is both thrilling and unnerving, even if familiar with the plot, as we are unaware of where we will be pushed to next, especially during the battle scene. The ideas of 20th century Europe were touched upon by exploring how quickly the opinion of the populace can change, and the importance of the will of the masses. This is a near-perfect production, with some energy lacking only at the end, which seems to detract from the importance of the deaths of Cassius and Brutus. However, the risky decisions behind this exceptionalinterpretation of Julius Caesar are a breath of fresh air for modern Shakespeare revivals, and demonstrate that reinventing Shakespeare can be done, to great effect.