I was not altogether surprised when Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar appeared on stage looking suspiciously like Donald Trump. The play’s interest in political leaders who favour prejudice over rationality is particularly relevant given the current political climate. Caesar is uprooted from ancient Rome and reimagined in the modern world, greeted by a sea of audience members, who are gathered around the stage wearing ‘Caesar’ memorabilia and dancing to crowd-pleasing classics. It is difficult to discern if we are at a rock concert, a Trump rally or a Shakespearian production.
Nicholas Hytner’s execution of the play is excellent. The versatility of the Bridge Theatre’s production space is showcased, with the stage transforming seamlessly between scenes and distractions created on and off stage throughout the play to manipulate the audience’s gaze. It would have been a thrilling experience for the live audience, who are hastily scattered by violent outbreaks between political rivals and pushed aside during scenes of civil war. Given the play’s exploration of power and populism, this immersive and interactive experience is heavily relied on. The audience is central to the action, immediately positioned on the ‘wrong’ side of politics by welcoming Caesar in the opening scene and slowly becoming complicit in the rise of an autocratic leader.
Although Caesar is likened most strongly to Trump, he embodies all power-hungry dictators. While it seems obvious a Trump-like leader should not remain in power, his murder does little to resolve any of Rome’s problems. Rather, it sets off a chain reaction of death and suffering. Hytner manages to capture this dilemma between action and inaction very well: both paths are undesirable. It is an ominous moment when Octavius, surrounded by dead bodies, gleefully claims power in the final scene. It seems one despot is replaced by another. It is not Caesar who is mistrusted, but any leader who represents the qualities of a demagogue.
Though contextualising the play within current politics may seem like a predictable way of demonstrating Shakespeare’s continued relevance, it helps to engage an audience who may need some persuading. We are reminded that history repeats itself, an alarming prospect, given the carnage that unfolds.
There is no doubt that this is an engaging, highly enjoyable production. What is lost, however, is the sense of moral and ethical ambiguity that pervades the original play. When I finished reading Julius Caesar for the first time, I wasn’t sure whether Brutus should have murdered Caesar. Brutus claims to love Caesar, but this love is superseded by his desire to uphold Rome’s best interests. Was it noble of Brutus to place the interests of Rome above his own personal feelings? Did Brutus really believe he was acting for the greater good? Was Brutus power hungry? Some of these questions are lost in Hytner’s production. Caesar’s resemblance to Trump creates a more one dimensional interpretation of the play. Caesar is bad; Brutus is good. The absence of guilt and self-doubt made me question whether this particular Brutus really did love Caesar.
The complexity of his decision to murder Caesar is somewhat reduced. Caesar is portrayed with few redeeming qualities, without any of the charm one would expect from a populist leader. His appearance on stage in a wheelchair and oxygen mask suggests he does not have long to live, and he appears more senile than threatening when he wanders around the stage in his flannel pyjamas, mocking his wife who (correctly) foreshadows his untimely death. In the original play, Brutus and his entourage repeatedly stab Caesar. However, Hytner’s adaption replaces knives with guns. In doing so, the crime becomes depersonalised. Brutus is more removed from the bloody act of murder.
The film of Hytner’s Julius Caesar is worthwhile to see if only for the cinematic experience and impressive cast. The creative use of camera angles, sound and lighting are curated perfectly to ensure remote audiences are as much immersed in the experience as they would have been standing in the Bridge Theatre in London. I was entertained from start to finish.