Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar – A play for the modern age?
I recently went to see the production of Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar” at the Bridge Theatre. The Bridge Theatre is a new theatre on the Southbank of the Thames River, near Tower Bridge and the London Assembly Building. I originally booked it because I have a daughter who is doing A Levels in English and Classical Civilisation and thought that the play would be good for both. I wasn’t particularly pleased when I saw that the Director (Nicholas Hytner) had done the play in modern costume rather than as might befit the costumes that would have been appropriate for the historical Julius Caesar. I was completely wrong on this!
This production of the play is superb, very compelling and emotionally convincing. The sound effects and stage props gave a vivid and gripping image of the noise and ruin of modern civil war.
The cheapest tickets were for people to stand in the pit of the theatre. The audiences seats are all around the outside of the centre in which all the action takes place. You can’t therefore really call it a stage, but the theatre had various sorts of clever ways of bringing stage props in and out with the various parts of the floor raising and lowering and having the crowd acting, in effect, as live props around whom the action was taking place added tremendously to the atmosphere of the play.
We came in to a US Presidential style campaign rally with a fantastic rock/punk style band with banners flying and being waved enthusiastically and placards held up of Great Caesar! (David Calder).
The Left/Liberal Directorship of the production actually didn’t grate at all despite the attempts to introduce Trump style touches with red baseball caps and, in fact, these seemed to simply make the whole play feel that much more up to date.
The casting was multi-ethnic and also cast quite a number of women in roles which Shakespeare had written for men and who were historically men as well as being orignally homogeneously white Caucasian Romans, but these touches of political correctness did not detract from the production.
The play has various relevancies to the modern world and not only with Shakespeare’s superb language and ringing phrases, but also the productions political messages include Brutus (Ben Whishaw) as the archetypal Left/Liberal elitist obsessing about and making academic public speeches about abstract constitutional theorising. This is including his unwillingness to follow through the logic of the assignation to include the killing of Caesar’s immediate friends and, in particular, Mark Antony. He is the embodiment of the worst of all possible generals – the one who wants to be nice to the enemy!
Mark Antony (David Morrisey) was superbly played, as Shakespeare draws him, as a superbly effective, emotive and populist speaker but with more than a whiff of dishonesty and hypocrisy.
Shakespeare’s play and this production rightly points out that most people are not moved by appeals to abstract constitutional ideas, but are much more ready to support and engage with ideas expressed with real emotional punch. The play’s topical message for us therefore is that, in campaigning for England and England’s future, we need to avoid the trap of the Brutus approach and aim to be more Mark Antony, albeit an honest Mark Antony!