Laurels are so last year. Today’s Caesars come crowned with combovers. In Central Park last year, the Public Theater’s Oskar Eustis caused controversy by drawing too definite a line between Rome’s first de facto emperor and America’s 45th President. Now, in London, former National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner might stop short of the full blond thatch look, but there’s no mistaking the man behind his “Julius Caesar.”
It starts with a rock band at a political rally. Merch stands flog cheap red “CAESAR” caps to the crowd and posters show the man himself staring sternly out of the shadows, arms folded in his best television tough guy pose. David Calder’s Caesar has the same jowly look and the stiff, arthiritic stride as one Donald J. Trump. He might not be promising to “Make Rome Great Again,” but he stands in front of a slogan that vows action, if not exact political aims: “Julius Caesar: Do It.” It’s politics post-spin; all brand, no substance.
But beware the shades of Trump. Calder’s Caesar is more unpinnable than that, and Hytner’s warning has a wider reach. His target is populism whatever its form, whether from the right or the left. This is a Caesar that shapeshifts; sometimes a coup leader in military pomp, sometimes a dead revolutionary idol. Even his casual clothing looks calculated — a means of blending in with the crowd. Calder’s Caesar is, by turns, Stalin-esque, Mao-ish and yes, even reminiscent of Britain’s left-wing darling Jeremy Corbyn. Look closer and you might spot bits of Bush and Blair too. Inside every leader, there’s a populist lurking — and a would-be emperor too.
When Caesar grows too high and mighty, its his courtly civil servants, led by Ben Whishaw’s cautious political philosopher of a Brutus and Michelle Fairley’s fearful, horrified Cassius, that start to plot against him.
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With characteristic clear-sightedness, Hytner manages to split Shakespeare’s play into an analysis of the political system: leaders, political elites and people. By playing it in promenade, he doesn’t merely turn us into the crowd — those “friends, Romans, countrymen” David Morrissey’s gruff and emotive Mark Antony calls upon — it’s that we play along. We sing along with the band (Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It”), chant Caesar’s name as one and wave posters when prompted. All the while, pushed this way and that by burly stagehands, we’re completely aware of our own manipulation — and, indeed, our willing submission.
Yet this is, in itself, a crowd-pleasing production. The text been trimmed down to a taut two hours, and the plot gains the pulse of a political thriller. Brutus and his fellow conspirators take the play at a clip, breathless with uncertainty and pumping with adrenaline. They might be unlikely assassins in overcoats and office shirts, but they still cut sharp silhouettes with semi-automatics outstretched; “The West Wing” meets “Spooks.” Bunny Christie’s immersive design has a cinematic scope and, in the middle of Bruno Poet’s visceral lighting and Paul Arditti’s skin-pricking sound, as smoke grenades go off at our feet and shouts ricochet from all around us, it’s impossible not to get swept away. This is blockbuster theater, big-budget and sweeping and never less than exciting. There were times I forgot I watching Shakespeare, and I can think of no higher compliment than that.
It’s not that Hytner ever dumbs the play down, or skims over its surface with a contemporary gloss. It’s more that he sews Shakespeare’s world so tightly into the fabric of our own, that there’s simply no snagging on those 400 years. You know exactly what you’re watching at all times and, up close, we get to appreciate the rich details on show. It’s Brutus reaching for his hand sanitizer on the front line of a warzone, or Mark Antony going through his kill list with a yellow highlighter. Hytner nails the way banalities bleed into civil war as our ordered world fragments and falls apart. In that, this “Julius Caesar” is a warning against what might lie ahead: What happens when a rift becomes irreparable? That’s the terrifying prospect here: neither Trump nor Caesar, but what comes in their wake.