Nicholas Hytner's contemporary take on ancient Rome's political elite is sparsely set. Props and scenery are largely absent, costumes are in subdued colours, and scene changes are carried out in the dark, quickly and inconspicuously. This serves to focus attention on the text, and the emotions and interaction between characters, characters who look like they could have walked right off a street outside. Hytner isn't very interested in dissecting Roman historical details in this interpretation, but in something more universal - the nature of political leadership, on how the masses can and do perceive politicians, and on how the masses can so easily be manipulated. We start off, before scene one, with a loud, heavy metal band, playing to bopping, beer-drinking audience members standing around the stage. At first this appeared to be a kind of warm-up act, until during the rock music commotion, a man appeared with a track suit top that said "Mark Antony" on the back, and spoke to the crowd. Oh no, we thought, is this noise is part of the play, do we have to put up with this repetitive, blaring electronic throbbing throughout this production? Fortunately, no. However, after our screen went blank shortly afterwards (we were told because of technical problems) we then, in our cinema, landed up in the middle of Act I Scene II, just before Cassius describes pulling a nearly drowning Caesar out of the water. Hence I can't tell you how the warm-up act actually segued into Scene I, the famous Beware the Ides of March scene. But this rock 'n roll prelude set a tone: there were frequent loud electronic sound effects throughout the performance, which tested the abilities of the actors to project their voices and their diction above the noise and rabble. All passed. In fact, all actors navigated the 16th century dialogue with nuance, humour, and received thespian pronunciation. This was even though some of the actors, such as Wendy Kweh, from Singapore, (as Calpurnia) come from a background where learning the fluent speaking of English dialogue from 1599 isn't part of the background culture. What of the characterizations? Hytner took the surprising decision to cast a woman as Cassius, but it worked. Michelle Fairley was outstanding in this role, and projected a truly lean and hungry look, but Adjoa Andoh nearly stole a few scenes from her, with her amusing swagger and mannerisms. David Calder emitted Caesar's arrogance from within a somewhat crumpled lounge suit, and made the man seem much more like one of those talking political figureheads seen on the nightly news. Of course later we see that this is not the whole of the man. David Morrissey was a Mark Antony of a seemingly naive fan-club sort at first, yet who blossoms into one who manipulates a crowd through flawless word magic and innuendo. Ben Whishaw's Brutus was scholarly and measured in approach, but ultimately misguided by his education. The entire interpretation works well as a mirror to our own era, where politicians' personalities play on world stages, civil unrest is bubbling away, the elite try to keep the masses in the dark from unraveling what is really going on, and where there are dark and abrupt political scene changes . Shakespeare tells of a deep state in Rome before Christ. This is the aspect that Hytner chooses to focus on and dress in contemporary clothes.
National Theatre Live: Julius Caesar
National Theatre Live: Julius Caesar
Caesar returns in triumph to Rome and the people pour out of their homes to celebrate. Alarmed by the autocrat's popularity, the educated elite conspire to bring him down. After his assassination, civil war erupts on the streets of Rome.
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