Hytner’s Caesar hits paydirt

The National Theatre’s former director is giving it stiff competition further down the Thames

Theatre
Splendidly manipulative: David Morrissey as Mark Antony in “Julius Caesar” at the newly-opened Bridge Theatre (©MANUEL HARLAN)

The Bridge Theatre is Nicholas Hytner’s postscript to his successful tenure at the National Theatre, and a mere prop’s throw away, nestling by Tower Bridge. It is an address so new that it baffles Uber drivers.

Such overt competition has made the National nervy, not least because with Julius Caesar Hytner is elbowing himself cheekily into its space as a home of classic British drama. After a lacklustre start with Young Marx, which we might kindly describe as a soft launch for more easily-pleased Guardianistas, Hytner has hit paydirt with a bold, brash and pacey visitation of the turmoils of crowd power, ambition and fierce nemesis in ancient Rome.

The intention is to do with Caesar’s woes what he did with Henry V as incoming artistic director of the National back in 2003. Then, it was the Iraq war which resonated through the action. Now it is crowd manipulation and populism. We are pumped up by renditions of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”, more popularly known as that irritatingly memorable “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” number .

Those hardy enough to stand for two hours as groundlings get to surge round the coffin, hold up portraits of Caesar and be covered in a huge swathe of blood-red silk when the murders are performed. They’re undisguised gangland executions here, with squat assassins’ pistols and Caesar bleeding out with full gore in front of us, his coagulate glinting under the stage lights.

As a fashionably presidential Caesar, David Calder exudes gruff, intolerant power, smugly dismissing the Ides of March threat with a knowing sneer to the audience to join him in scorning such a foolish idea.

David Morrissey is my favourite stardust as a splendidly manipulative Mark Antony. Ben Whishaw (lately heard as the Paddington Bear voiceover) gives us a geeky, over-thinking Brutus. The only uncomfortable innovation among the plotters is a sex-changed Cassius (Michelle Fairley), which feels forced. I have no objection to women playing men’s parts in Shakespeare. Harriet Walter has done so with distinction in Henry IV and her own excellent, tough Caesar at the Donmar. Fairley plays a brisk, cold-hearted conspirator, but the production can’t quite decide whether we are supposed to be ignoring her gender or making something of it. Even in this era of preferred pronouns and identifying-as-he-she-or-it, we are baffling to find the General-usurper is sometimes a he and sometimes a she. The audience needs more clarity about what the gender switch intends to invoke, otherwise it just looks faddish.

The Bridge is not a huge stage and Bunny Christie’s flexible design makes good use of it, with nifty scene changes from a projecting platform which turns sideways after the murder — with the crowd seething around in. By the last act, it has been dismantled into heaps of barricades and tangles of barbed wire.

It’s not so hard to figure out what Hytner is driving at in a play that shows the consequences of populism and emotional appeal (the theatre has a kind of repetitive Tourette’s syndrome on Trump and Brexit at the moment). But a new house needs to make noise and this Caesar throws a full, violent punch. “All the words are going to bleed from me/And I will sing no more,” as Shakespeare put it. *

A failsafe test of how a garlanded contemporary play is faring for longevity is to see it transfer to a new home. Critics don’t review recastings often enough, which is tough on the actors and underserves audiences who couldn’t get in the first time to hit shows. So I headed back to Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman at the Gielgud as it prepares to transfer to Broadway later this year.

No one could argue with the success of Butterworth’s drama about the uneasy ghosts of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, as they play out in 1981 in a Derry family riven by secrets, lies and cover-ups. It has been one of the fastest-selling plays in recent stage history, with Butterworth’s mixture of pathos and irreverence and a talent for sheer oddity — a live goose, several rabbits and Irish dancing that shifts into a punk classic that reveals desperation and longing.

Some of the edge has gone from the Royal Court original. The main loss is that of Paddy Considine as the sexy, tormented Quinn Carney, prohibited from mourning the death of his brother by an IRA ruse of suggesting than he may still be alive, and in love (or at least lust) with his widow. Owen McDonnell is a competent heir, but I missed Considine’s ability to exude unease, even in moments of comedy or tenderness.

Brid Brennan was an odder, more disturbed Aunt Maggie Faraway than her successor, Stella McCusker, as the family’s senile Cassandra. I miss Dearbhla Molloy as the vicious harpy Aunt Pat (now a primmer Sian Thomas), harbouring hate for Margaret Thatcher and memories of the 1916 uprising. Thankfully, she retains some of the finest tart repartee of the night.

Uncle Pat: “Let’s not be teaching the wee ’un that being English makes you wicked.”

Aunt Pat: “As a rule of thumb, it’s proved uncannily accurate.”

The Ferryman is a stout enough play to take re-recasting, but it does feel as if some of the rougher edges that lent it its raw energy have been filed away too smoothly. The ending (enough swift bloodshed to make Julius Caesar look like a peaceful resolution) is rushed and Aunt Maggie’s belief that the banshees are coming to wreak vengeance has been chopped so short that we might as well have lost the whole trope. Never mind: The Ferryman will sail the Atlantic with deserved aplomb, assuming they can find a goose without stage fright in Manhattan.