Today is the Ides of March, so I should have known better than to go to a performance yesterday of Julius Caesar at London’s new theatre, The Bridge. Remember, it was on the eve of the Ides that Brutus, Casca, Cinna and the others formed their conspiracy to assassinate Caesar. I knew that Nicholas Hytner’s production, in the theatre he co-founded with Nick Starr, was to be a “promenade” staging, meaning that, the stalls seats having been removed, the “pit” would be crammed with young people pretending to be the protesting Roman plebs. What I could not have predicted was that the events in the theatre would be mirrored in the streets of London.
The taxi fare to the theatre was £43, two quid less than the (non-press) ticket I bought for my wife. Neither my black taxi driver, nor I, appreciated that it would be impossible to travel from Marylebone Station to London Bridge by any of the normal, more or less rational routes. Central London was shut down, with Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square closed off. The trick was to find a way to cross the river – which we finally did at Blackfriars Bridge. The 20-minute journey took just over an hour.
The reason: as we went down Gower Street to Malet Street. we saw hundreds of neatly stacked, wood-handled cardboard protest signs, and there was a large crowd on the steps of (one of) my alma mater(s), University College London. They were part of a giant protest march about striking lecturers and their pension rights. Never, in the 50 years I have lived in the UK, have I seen London brought to such a standstill – not even during the Iraq war or, come to that, the Vietnam protests.
We know the world is going to hell in a hand-cart. Trump’s presidency alone would be proof of that – but we can add on to that Brexit, and Russia’s policy of assassination. What could be more apposite than a modern-dress Julius Caesar staged in the round, with a flag-carrying mob (which seemed to consist mostly of young girls in school uniform), beginning with some thumping rock music? When Caesar makes his first appearance he is wearing a too-long red tie. You have to congratulate Sir Nick, as this is his production’s sole gesture that identifies David Calder’s Caesar with the preposterous POTUS. The weapons used are, of course, guns; lighting designer Bruno Poet and sound designer Paul Arditti make the civil war seem equally up-to-date, and frightening.
The play has been cut to run for two hours without an inverval – which means that designer Bunny Christie’s movable platforms, on which the action takes place, zip up and down at a furious pace. Hytner is so good at bringing Shakespeare home to us – in every sense – that the production would – mostly – have worked even without stellar performances by Ben Whishaw as a bookish, contemplative Brutus, and David Morrisey as a slick, political populism-mongering Antony. The staging is bang-on up-to-date: Brutus’s big mistake is his failure to “no-platform” Antony. However, the production is a tad too PC in one regard. Julius Caesar is short on female roles – indeed, Shakespeare wrote dialogue for only the wimpish wives, Calpurnia and Portia, and never mind that these would have been played by boys. The big news in British theatre circles is the movement for equal pay, and better parts for women.
So, Sir Nick has cast Caius Cassius, Casca, and assorted conspirators, tribunes, citizens and soldiers with women playing the roles. It wouldn’t have been disturbing except that, at the performance I saw, the usually excellent Michelle Fairley began a touch feebly as Cassius – though she perked up a bit after being smeared with Caesar’s Kensington Gore. I’m sure I was not alone in being confused by all the pronoun changes of “he” to “she” and “him” to “her,” while the proper names were left in the masculine “-us” ending. And, honestly, I don’t think Christina Cunningham’s butch costumes helped much either. None of this was devastatingly harmful to the play, and while I’m in total sympathy with the equal pay campaign, the role-swops were just silly.
As for The Bridge Theatre, London’s newest commercial, 900-seat, entirely flexible (the first production had a traditional proscenium arch; Caesar is totally in the round), it’s a marvel – I think. It’s not altogether clear to me how you get there – we had a long walk after the taxi set us down; and it was a huge distance from it to London Bridge Underground Station, or to what appears to be the closest taxi rank. I was unable to find the parking and lifts for the disabled (of which I am one—though I managed the stairs nicely.) There is a branch of the Ivy restaurant very near the entrance to the Theatre; and near it some restaurants with considerably better food than when I last ate at the (original) Ivy. It looks as though The Bridge is going to be an exciting addition to London’s amenities. Just check, before you go, that there isn’t a demo taking place that day – and make sure Agent Orange, Trump, is not in town.