Julius Caesar at National Theatre

I suppose playing Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play as Donald Trump is obvious when you think about it. Producers are always looking for a new angle for their productions and like to show Shakespeare is still relevant and for all time. This National Theatre production makes the connection early.  The noisy rally, the merchandise and finally when Caesar throws the red baseball cap into the crowd all make the point for the spectator. David Calder (faced with having Shakespeare’s lines so he can not utter typically Donald Trump expressions) does a sterling job of copying Trump’s mannerisms and gestures with great accuracy.  I saw that a hairstylist was credited for this production. I just so wish she had been allowed to give Calder an orange comb over.

British critics, however, have seen Nicholas Hytner’s production for the National Theatre as a commentary on the vacillations of the Brexiteers. I can’t comment on that watching the play from an antipodean perspective. I still see the play as the tragedy of Brutus as I did in the 1970s and 1980s when I taught it to unwilling students.  Brutus, like Hillary Clinton, fails to see the appeal of a purely emotive approach to campaigning for the loyalty of the fickle mob while Mark Anthony like Trump hits his listeners right where they feel. The story always triumphs over a well-reasoned argument, the populist orator over a high minded intellectual.

Ben Whishaw’s portrayal of Brutus seems to polarise the critics, yet he is so convincing as the impractical intellectual caught up in a nasty coup. When one of the crowd calls out “Then let him be Caesar”, you can see his pain at realising the crowd has not understood his intentions.

Critics have panned David Morrissey as being too old to be convincing as Mark Anthony. I can not see their argument. Morrissey works the audience in that famous speech like a maestro. He is totally convincing and demonstrates that audiences can respond to rhetoric just as well as to Donald Trump’s appeal to the lowest common denominator.

The National Theatre has an interesting practice of playing women in male roles and people of other ethnicities in roles where we have been accustomed to Europeans. This always challenges me. Michelle Fairley is electrifying as Cassius and she looks just the part when Caesar gives the “mean and hungry look” speech. Critics have criticised her large handbag, but that just reminds me of Maggie Thatcher, which is surely the point? Similarly, the actress playing Calpurnia is of Asian descent and that gives another nuance to the scene where she tries to persuade Caesar to stay home. Like the Lady Macbeth character in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, played by a traditional Japanese woman, we westerners can feel a dissonance at the spectacle of an Asian woman being assertive with her husband. The only problem is that in the scenes where Cassius wins Brutus over to the conspiracy, because they are now between a man and a woman, it feels like they have a suppressed love attachment.

The staging is innovative with a theatre in the round and a series of platforms which can be raised or lowered to create the actors a space above the audience – who are standing promenade style like the groundlings of old. What I liked was how the audience then became the mob in the mob scenes with the actors interspersed among the spectators. While this can not have been easy for audience or stage crew especially in the battle , I have always liked productions where the invisible wall between actors and spectators is broken down – although I don’t recall seeing any other productions which do this since the early 1970s.

The stage crew in this production had quite a challenge to convert the stage from the streets of Rome to the battlefield at Philippi. It seemed effortless, however. There was no intermission to create the chaotic scenes. The lighting and sound were amazing at creating the battle on stage. I understand some performances in The Bridge Theatre concluded with the audience applauding the

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *