by Rachel Beaumont

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Brutus alone: Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre

Julius Caesar
Bridge Theatre
Gallery C42, £15
23 February 2018
Bridge Theatre page

I’ve never derived as much from a performance of Julius Caesar as I did from this of Nicholas Hytner’s production at the Bridge Theatre. That’s partly because I haven’t seen Julius Caesar often or recently enough and mainly because Hytner knows very clearly what he wants to distil from the text and then has the actors and production team in place to amplify the text in that distillation.

The gimmick of the production is the presence of a portion of the audience on the stage, a literal representation of the Roman populous. I say gimmick but there are many positive aspects to this approach, beyond its straightforward connection to the play’s matter. One is the sheer novelty of seeing that many people on a theatre stage, the second the exuberant ingenuity their presence imposes on the creative team; the modular set by production designer Bunny Christie, entertaining throughout, crescendoes to a thrilling, high-paced final battle. The crowd is a clear spur to this creativity and the production’s resultant atmosphere.

But one can’t deny that this turbum is not very turbulent; indeed, they behave exactly as you would expect contemporary London Shakespeare theatregoers to behave i.e. docilely. The effect was no doubt magnified by our bird’s-eye view but I was often distracted by the crowd reaction the actors were envisioning as usual and its contrast to what we could see before us – particularly in the funeral scene, where, of course, among a large crowd it was the same handful of people who clamour first for Brutus and then for Mark Antony.

Allowing for all the advantages of Hytner’s production approach, I think his main success is his work with the actors. I focus on Ben Whishaw’s Brutus but its cohesion is dependent on the behaviour of the ensemble. Brutus, we know, is logical, learned, academic; he deduces his course of action and then applies it. His tragedy is that his logic is a construct and its architecture invisible to those it needs to inspire. Hytner and company make no radical deviation but rather delicately shade their interpretation through a range of nuance. Brutus is reluctant but impassioned. His faction urge him on but then are too weak to contradict the force of his vision when they see it will not work – the ensemble collectively marks each turning point as Brutus leads them to disaster, ratcheting tension at every step.

The interrelations around Brutus are used both to deepen his character and force the inevitability of his failure. Calpurnia needs too much from him and he has withdrawn from her and from depths of emotion that appear uncontrolled; but he is painfully aware of and sympathetic to this need in others, a weakness, as he sees it, that as much it can be admitted must be made to yield to the progression he envisions from his learning. Living in isolation he has no perspective on his deductions and how they will land when simplified and shorn of the context in which he has buried himself. Calpurnia cannot understand, even his faction cannot understand – what hope is there for the rest?

Perhaps the costume designs struck the wrong tone, casting Mark Antony as the organized military force and Brutus as guerrilla rebel, a value-laden distinction that isn't necessary. But viewed as a whole this was a thoroughly entertaining, completely engrossing consideration of the inevitability and avoidability of conflict, and the peril of communication.

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