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Review: It's rock and roll and riot with Ben Whishaw, David Morrissey and Michelle Fairley in Julius Caesar

I'm in a crowd watching a band play rock tunes, it's getting lively and animated.

Merchandise and refreshment sellers weave their way through the rhythmically nodding heads and shuffling feet.  Hands have started clapping along to the music and flags are being waved.

Centre Abraham Popoola - Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre - Photo credit Manuel Harlan
Centre Abraham Popoola - Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre - Photo: Manuel Harlan

It's like a gig except it isn't a band name emblazoned on the banners, T-Shirts and posters, it is the face of Julius Caesar (David Calder). This is a political rally and it feels celebratory.

Given the mix of edgier and popular tracks on the band's play list, Julius Caesar is a lot more popular in music circles than President Trump, with whom we are obviously supposed to draw parallels.

When the man himself appears, we are quickly herded to one side with shouts of 'Get out of the way!' by serious-looking, ear-piece wearing security.

This is to become a common occurrence throughout the play - the tone of the herding reflective of whether it is part of the action or to make way for parts of stage rising up out of the floor we are standing on. But more on that later.

Ben Whishaw (Brutus) - Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre - Photo credit Manuel Harlan
Ben Whishaw (Brutus) - Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre - Photo: Manuel Harlan

Calder's Julius Caesar is a commanding presence or perhaps the circus around him makes him so.

Ben Whishaw's Brutus is a politely muted form on the periphery of the hullabaloo; afterwards he sits at a café table, drinking red wine and deep in a book which he has to wear glasses to read. This is obviously more his comfort zone.

In fact he is often seen with a book, playing with the glasses in his hand when he has to leave off reading.

He is incongruous to his name: he thinks, he considers, he lacks the brutality of mind and personality that perhaps would mean a different fate.

When he does get angry - the verbal fight between him and Cassius (Michelle Fairley) crackles with tension and there is some superb angry eating by Ben - it is out of frustration that his carefully thought through plans are not quite the success he envisioned.

Mark Antony (David Morrissey), by comparison, is a far more brutish - dangerous - character in many ways. Turning from Caesar's supportive 'yes' man into a Venus fly trap.

Ironically, he uses words far better than the bookish Brutus and crucially he seems to understand the crowd better - another fatal flaw in Brutus and his co-conspirators well-meaning plan.

I've seen the 'Friends, Romans, countrymen...' speech delivered with obvious irony even borderline sarcasm. Morrissey's delivery is the perfect blend of grief, passion and reason - you don't realise cleverness of it until after the crowd has dispersed. From there he is merciless compare to Brutus' mercy. 

David Calder (Caesar) - Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre - Photographer credit Manuel Harlan
David Calder (Caesar) - Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre - Photo: Manuel Harlan

The opening rally scene creates a sensitive, malleable atmosphere. Once part of the crowd you stay part of the crowd there to be manipulated by the politics of the play. 

You are shouted at, hide those who shout out, are goaded into shouting and cheering. You are given fliers and flowers - you might even get to shake hands with one of the conspirators or get trod on during a fight (accidental I'm sure).

And then when civil war breaks out, soldiers run past you and gun shots sound from all around, there is an urge to take cover.

This is a truly immersive theatre experience and one that stays with you long after you've left the auditorium which looks, in the end, appropriately like a rally turned bad a mixture of battle scarred props, discarded political flyers and empty drinks containers.

There was only one thing that didn't quite work and that was the manner of Caesar's death. In giving the play a modern setting guns replace daggers which makes it less personal, more clinical - which works to a point.

When the conspirators smear their hands in Caesar's blood it's often a difficult act to reconcile but even more so when he's been shot rather than stabbed, when they'd already be a bit bloody. 

It's a minor thing in what is a roller coaster-paced, rock and roll, often riotous and atmospheric production. It feels fresh and exciting and I very much enjoyed being part of the crowd.

I'm giving Julius Caesar 5 stars, it's two hours long without an interval and it's at the Bridge Theatre until April 15.


About the promenade tickets: These are great fun if you don't mind standing for at least a couple of hours.

You'll have to leave coats and bags in one of the cloakrooms but take a payment card with you in case you want to buy a drink or merchandise in the auditorium.

It is worth getting down into the auditorium at least 10-15 minutes before the official start time as the band start playing and the atmosphere starts building. It doesn't really matter where you stand as bits of stage pop up in different configurations so you get moved around by ushers or characters in the play depending on the scene.

Even if you are deep in the crowd most of the time the action takes place up on stage so you get a pretty good view (I'm only 5ft 2) - and you aren't in the same spot for too long anyway.

I've booked seated tickets for later in the run for comparison. The seats are all in the galleries so you are looking down on the action - more observer rather than participant.  


Related posts:

More production photos for Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre

Video: Ben Whishaw talks about playing Brutus.