National Theatre at Home review: Julius Caesar (Bridge Theatre)
James R | On 20, May 2021
“This is my answer: not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.” That’s Brutus (Ben Whishaw) explaining to Rome why he joined the plot to assassinate Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s historical tragedy. If it sounds like someone desperately trying to excuse his actions, you wouldn’t be far wrong – Shakespeare’s play explores the line between personal ambition, patriotic duty and moral responsibility.
These are strikingly timely themes to tackle, and the Bridge Theatre’s remarkable production doesn’t shy away from them; as played by David Calder, Caesar is a populist figure who sports a baseball cap and wields charisma that’s as imperious as his apparent dictatorship. That ability to whip up a crowd is nearly amplified by Bunny Christie’s immersive approach to staging, which rips out the stalls of the theatre to create a pit for half the audience to stand in.
Amid this baying gaggle of onlookers, who cheer, jeer and react to events with the subtle prompting of the cast and crew, segments of the stage emerge from the ground, changing the scenes and locations with every moving block. The whole arena is stunningly, gradually turned from an introductory protest rave in the streets to a baying rabble and, finally, a disarray of rubble in an escalating war zone. It’s not often you see audience members dive for cover amid gunshots, wave placards with slogans or move out of the way when a jeep roars into the room – and even on a recording of the production, the ability for the camera to be amid the action makes for a memorable and distinctive watch.
If that were the only achievement of the production, that would be enough to earn its place in history, but the cast also bring out fresh nuances in the ensemble. Chief among them is Ben Whishaw, whose Brutus is more bookish than backstabber – an intellectual who struggles to handle the practical consequences of his ideas, attempting to convince himself he’s done the right thing as much as he attempts to convince the wider city. He’s complemented superbly by Michelle Fairley as an intense, female Cassius and David Morrissey as a commanding, confident Mark Anthony who, beneath his boisterous facade, is a shameless opportunist. The result is a mesmerising cycle of people rising and falling on a public stage, with every turn of professional and personal fate enabled by the complicity of the person next to them.
Julius Caesar (2018) is available on National Theatre at Home as a £7.99 rental or as part of a £9.98 monthly subscription. For more on National Theatre at Home and how it works, click here.