Monday, March 26, 2018

Julius Caesar: Crowd Scenes

Ben Whishaw as Brutus in Nicholas Hytner’s Julius Caesar. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Nicholas Hytner’s modern-dress Julius Caesar at London’s snazzy new theatre, The Bridge, goes by like a shot. It runs for a slimmed-down two hours without an intermission, barreling from one location to another as the story line zips along; the scene shifts are so boisterous and eruptive that there’s no chance that an audience will lose interest. (The one that takes us from Caesar’s home to the Senate, which is signaled by a scarlet sheet hauled over the main playing area, is especially theatrical. Bunny Christie designed the set and the lighting is by Bruno Poet.) In any case the crowd at The Bridge never gets a chance to lag behind the action, since they – at least the spectators you can see in the HD transmission – are on their feet like the standees at Shakespeare’s Globe, being hauled and shoved around as if this were a piece of immersive theatre. (Strictly speaking, it isn’t.) I wouldn’t enjoy having to stand (and be manipulated) for a couple of hours, but from my comfortable movie-theatre seat I had a pretty good time.

The idea of involving the audience, of course, underscores one of the play’s themes, the mutability of mobs, but it doesn’t work – just as it didn’t work to drag audience members into Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Donmar Warehouse last summer. Unfortunately, we’re going to see this kind of nonsense enacted over and over again over the next few years until people get really tired of it and directors finally get the message that untrained actors thrust into the middle of a play are generally stultifying. Hytner doesn’t make as big a deal out of this practice as Simon Evans did in Arturo Ui, but the non-actors are a physical obstacle, and every time the camera got stuck on one or a group of them I wanted to look away in embarrassment. Hytner is going for chaos; he depicts the political realities of the Rome of the Caesars as scrappy and sloppy, swinging heavily and clumsily from one faction to another. His production emphasizes the helplessness of the conspirators as much as of Julius Caesar (David Calder) at controlling the tide of events: Brutus (Ben Whishaw) and his cohorts manage to still the populace in the wake of Caesar’s murder but only long enough for Mark Antony (David Morrissey), whom Brutus has unwisely permitted to give the dead man’s eulogy, to rouse them again and whip Rome into a state of unrest so that he and Octavius Caesar (Kit Young) can move in. And once Brutus and Cassius (Michelle Fairley) go to war with Octavius and Antony, they bungle it badly and end up a pair of suicides at the edges of the battlefield. I’ve never seen a revival of this play that focused so much on the catch-as-catch-can nature of warfare or on the ineptitude of the conspirators – though once you see it foregrounded in Hytner’s version it seems so obvious that you’re amazed you haven’t seen it before.

Whishaw plays Brutus as a sort of cafĂ© intellectual who turns out to have a taste for violence; his portrayal reminded me of those sixties leftists with a fondness for theory who somehow managed to show up in news photos with a gun in their hands. It’s a remarkable approach to the role, not quite like any other piece of acting I can remember seeing, and it makes brilliant use of Whishaw’s sensitive, cerebral looks and his inventive sort of forcefulness. You can’t always see exactly how he’s grounding and justifying all of the parts of Brutus – the stoicism, the reasoning, the rage (in the big tent scene with Cassius), the existential unrest, the grief after his wife Portia kills herself while he’s away at war – but he gets you from one to the other without feeling jarred. (Hytner’s choice is to have Leaphia Darko play Portia as a fragile hysteric, which might work if the actress weren’t so awful. Luckily she’s in only one scene.)

Fairley is emphatic but monochromatic as Cassius, a role that has a habit of tricking actors up, but Calder makes a fine Caesar, playing him as a genial and charismatic leader, rough around the edges, whom the adoring populace hasn’t noticed is past his prime. Cassius’s feet-of-clay speech about him – her complaint that a man she can best in athletic competitions, who even has physical infirmities, should be treated like a god – rings especially true here. I was a little thrown by the casting of David Morrissey, who, in his mid-fifties, seems old for Mark Antony, but since Calder is a couple of decades his senior his filial relationship to Caesar still makes sense; we get the idea that it must have begun when Antony was a considerably younger man. Morrissey doesn’t truly lay claim to the role, however, until Antony joins forces with Octavius and we begin to see his ruthless political side. Not all of the supporting cast is equally effective, but Adjoa Andoh gives a witty performance as the waspish Casca and Sid Sagar stands out in a couple of small parts, Flavius and Popilius.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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