Review: Julius Caesar, Bridge Theatre

David Calder as Julius Caesar
RATING: ★★★★

The Bridge's Julius Caesar is the epitome of theatre that is an experience. With a bold immersive staging and modern setting, it brings the audience directly into the story and shows that the ancient tale of a Roman emperor brought down by those closest to him isn't as far from our current world as we may think. Directed by Nicholas Hytner and designed by Bunny Christie, the production is a very tangible and accessible version of Shakespeare's play.

Julius Caesar is the story, based in truth, of a Roman emperor who has amassed too much power and his assassination at the hands of his friends and senators. The second part of the show follows the aftermath of his death and how Mark Antony wins the people over from the side of the perpetrators. In many ways, it reads as a warning about how the people may be swayed by rhetoric and great speeches.

The Bridge Theatre has seating around a large open space and audience members who have purchased "mob tickets" have free reign of the area. During the performance, platforms rise and fall from the ground and ushers urgently move people out of their way -- and the way of the action. I ended up at the front of the platforms in the pivotal scene in which Caesar is assassinated and it was a thrilling, and even a little bit frightening, experience.

Luckily for those standing, the show has been cut down to two hours with no interval. The continuous action and the proximity to the actors make it easy to get caught up in the drama of the piece. In my opinion, if you are at all able to stand for two hours, then it's the right way to see the show. I can imagine that it's still good from the seating, but it's incredibly powerful to be standing next to actors at times and be a part of the Roman crowds as Mark Antony delivers his famous speech.

Plus, as people filter into the theatre, the Street Band performs a mock rock concert and it's so fun to be towards the front of the stage. It's like a free mini concert thrown in with your theatre ticket!

Ben Whishaw as Marcus Brutus
The entire ensemble give wonderful performances, especially considering how close they are to the audience and the unique staging they're contending with. Ben Whishaw plays Brutus as a man who is bookish and intellectual to the point of naïveté. He makes it clear that it is only his love of Rome and his belief in doing what's right that motivate him to kill his friend, not his own ambition. He delivers Shakespeare's words very naturally and brings a likability to the character that easily wins the audience over to his side.

Michelle Fairley is a devious Cassius, playing Brutus and the other conspirators into her hands easily. However, in the second half of the show, she brings a vulnerability and a humanity to the character that is truly touching and disallows the audience from labeling her a villain.

It's obvious that this is no mere stunt casting, despite her being well known for her Game of Thrones role, but a part that she is truly qualified to play. I also love the decision to make many of the conspirators women, especially the role of Cassius.

David Calder plays a dignified and friendly Caesar, even as he makes it evident that he is happy to take all the power will Rome allow him. As an American, the site of a older white-hair politician in a baseball cap shaking hands with members of the crowd is all too familiar to me.

I was particularly impressed by Leila Farzad as Decius Brutus who did a lovely job showing her immediate grief after the assassination. I felt David Morrisey's Mark Antony was solid, if a bit standard but his speeches to the crowd were rousing.

Fred Fergus, Zachary Hart, Abraham Popoola, and Kit Young as the Street Band
The production definitely presses its relevance to today's world. In the beginning, while the band plays and people find their way to the auditorium, ushers circulate with food and red baseball caps with Caesar's motto on them to buy. It truly felt like a modern day American Republican political rally (except with a great band).

The modern adaption worked well with one exception. To me, the decision to (minor spoiler!) use guns to assassinate Caesar instead of knives took some of the brutality out of the action. The conspirators were able to stay at a range rather than having to see each of their own effect on him, which to me, took away from some of the difficulty of their task. Otherwise, I felt that the contemporary setting was well done.

I highly recommend seeing Julius Caesar while it's at the Bridge Theatre whether you're a Shakespeare fan or not. The immersive standing tickets are just £25 (or £15 if you join the Young Bridge Members) and I strongly believe it's the best way to see the piece. It closes on 15 April so hurry there before you miss it.

You can buy tickets on the Bridge's website or on TodayTix.

Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan 
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