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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.
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