×

London Theater Review: Nicholas Hytner’s Politically Charged ‘Julius Caesar’

With:
Adjoa Andoh, David Calder, Leaphia Darko, Rosie Ede, Michelle Fairley, Leila Farzad, Fred Fergus, Zachary Hart, Wendy Kweh, David Morrissey, Mark Penfold, Abraham Popoola, Sid Sagar, Nick Sampson, Hannah Stokely, Ben Whishaw, Kit Young.

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.

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.

London Theater Review: Nicholas Hytner's Politically Charged 'Julius Caesar'

Bridge Theatre, London; 900 seats; £65 ($91) top. Opened, reviewed Jan. 30, 2017. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Production: A Bridge Theatre production of a play in two acts by William Shakespeare.

Creative: Directed by Nicholas Hytner; Design, Bunny Christie; costume design, Christina Cunningham; lighting, Bruno Poet; sound, Paul Arditti; music, Nick Powell; fight direction, Kate Waters.

Cast: Adjoa Andoh, David Calder, Leaphia Darko, Rosie Ede, Michelle Fairley, Leila Farzad, Fred Fergus, Zachary Hart, Wendy Kweh, David Morrissey, Mark Penfold, Abraham Popoola, Sid Sagar, Nick Sampson, Hannah Stokely, Ben Whishaw, Kit Young.

More Legit

  • Signature Theatre Celebrates Millionth Subsidized Ticket

    Signature Theatre Offers $35 Subsidized Tickets, Celebrates Millionth Sold

    Just the other night, a Manhattan cab driver told Signature Theatre executive director Harold Wolpert that he couldn’t afford to take his girlfriend to a show. In response, Wolpert motioned to his theater, saying that they offer $35 subsidized tickets. The driver said he’d try it out. “It was a great moment,” Wolpert said. “We’re [...]

  • SOCRATES The Public Theater

    Tim Blake Nelson Waxes Philosophical on Writing a Play About Socrates

    Despite Tim Blake Nelson’s knack for playing folksy characters in films such as “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” in his soul lurks the heart of a classicist. Nelson, who stars in HBO’s “Watchmen” series this fall, has also penned the play “Socrates,” now running at New York’s Public Theater through June 2. Doug Hughes directs, [...]

  • TodayTix - Brian Fenty

    TodayTix Banks $73 Million to Boost Theater and Arts Ticketing App

    TodayTix, a Broadway-born mobile ticketing start-up, is looking to expand into a bigger global media and transaction enterprise with a capital infusion of $73 million led by private-equity firm Great Hill Partners. The investment brings TodayTix’s total capital raised to over $100 million, according to CEO and co-founder Brian Fenty. Part of the new funding [...]

  • Ethan Hawke, Bobby Cannavale and Griffin

    BAM Gala Marks Leadership Change, Celebrates Brooklyn as 'Cultural Center of New York'

    Wednesday’s annual gala celebrating the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) served as a poignant moment of transition for the New York stalwart of contemporary performance. As long-time artistic director Joe Melillo, who along with Harvey Lichtenstein transformed BAM into a vanguard of progressive art, prepares to pass the torch to new leadership, gathered patrons and [...]

  • Tootsie Santino Fontana

    Listen: Santino Fontana on How Broadway's 'Tootsie' Was Adapted for Our Times

    Broadway’s “Tootsie” has turned into one of this season’s Tony Awards frontrunners, winning raves for its deftly funny update of potentially problematic source material — and for a firecracker cast led by Tony nominee Santino Fontana (“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Frozen”), who makes his character’s transformation, from difficult actor Michael Dorsey to female alter ego Dorothy Michaels, [...]

  • Death of a Salesman review

    London Theater Review: 'Death of a Salesman'

    August Wilson famously disavowed the idea of an all-black “Death of a Salesman.” In 1996, he declared any such staging “an assault on our presence and our difficult but honorable history in America.” Arthur Miller’s antihero is no everyman, Wilson implied; Willy Loman is very specifically white. Critic John Lahr was inclined to agree: “To [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content