Immersive theatre doesn’t sit well with me a lot of the time. Whilst I always want to be as involved in the show as I can be, I want the fourth wall to stay very firmly up in a sense that I don’t want to be part of the production. Apart from when I got to sing ‘Ride Sally Ride’ into the microphone that Killian Donnelly thrust in my face during Mustang Sally at the end of The Commitments. I was very much okay when it came to being that close to the newly announced touring Jean Valjean in Les Mis. It put me off seeing Trainspotting as I’d heard bizarre things about it, but there was something about Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre that intrigued me. Immersive Shakespeare seemed like something I had to learn a little more about.
The Bridge Theatre is a new venue that opened last autumn, starting with new play Young Marx which I saw as an NT Live production at the start of the year. Headed up by National Theatre’s former director Nicholas Hynter, it’s a brave new venture opening a theatre out of the West End. But he has proved that it’s possible. A truly versatile space, productions at Bridge Theatre can be performed with a traditional stage or in the round. If you’re on the south bank of the Thames next to Tower Bridge, definitely pop in to take a look in the foyer. It’s a beautiful space with a vast menu and drink offering.
Following the success of Young Marx, Julius Caesar starring big names including David Morrissey as Mark Antony, Ben Whishaw as Brutus, David Calder as Julius Caesar, and Michelle Fairley as Cassius, opened at the end of January. Performed in the round, Julius Caesar also took advantage of the large floor space and sold mob tickets. These were standing tickets requiring the audience to move around the falling and rising platforms making up the stage. I was conflicted about buying one of these tickets over an ordinary seated ticket, but the Bridge Theatre operates a scheme known as Young Bridge, selling discount tickets for those under 26. £15 mob, or promenade, tickets for one of Shakespeare’s best known works starring some British treasures wasn’t something I was going to pass up and I found myself there on closing night with my dad (whilst musicals aren’t his favourite, he doesn’t mind seeing plays so I treated him for his birthday…I didn’t tell him about the discount tickets).
I haven’t seen that much Shakespeare in my time, and I haven’t seen any of the histories, but I don’t deliberately shy away from it. I just have a short attention span, and a 2 hour play will attract me over a 3 or 4 hour play (I’m looking at you, Hamlet). Fortunately, Julius Caesar was performed straight through without an interval despite having five acts, bringing it in at just two hours. And the Shakespearean language is easy to get your head around when you’re listening to it – far easier than reading it. At times the plot was a little difficult to follow, and there were definitely filler scenes rather than necessary scenes, but they weren’t stretched out too much.
Initially I found it a little odd that such a well-known Shakespeare play started with a rock concert featuring the songs of Katy Perry and Survivor, but this just added to the crowd nature of it, really setting the scene for the upcoming modern-dress production. I felt involved in a campaign, and I was raring to go. Following the exit of the band, who were also part of the ensemble, the floor beneath the mob began the move. Making use of rising and falling platforms, mob audience members had to keep on their toes to prevent being shoved around by the stage crew, but it allowed for an obvious scene change without having detailed scenery.
I’m going to be honest, I don’t usually like being too close to the action as you can miss bits and you also get spat and sweated on. I was definitely keen to get home and wash Ben Whishaw’s spit off my face! I did find that I msised a few select moments, especially towards the end, but I spent most of the first half in prime position. However, due to the nature of the constant movement you’re likely to be pushed around the audience a little and end up missing the odd moment. If I could catch an NT Live Encore performance of Julius Caesar locally I’d definitely be there to see where the prime viewing position was.
Morrissey and Whishaw’s interpretations of Marc Antony and Brutus respectively were spot-on with how I imagined the roles to be played. Whilst Cassius being played by woman isn’t a new concept, it remains to be fairly fresh, and worked brilliantly in showing the way that those in power still view women as the weaker sex. Choosing to speak to Marc Antony and Brutus over their female equivalent. This is just the start of having a popular production give gender-blind casting to a lead role, with Rosalie Craig (recently starring in The Ferryman) being cast as Bobby, or in this case, Bobbie, in Company opening in the autumn.
Plays such as Julius Caesar are still so relevant now, thanks to the idea of revolting against the government being in the forefront of so many minds across the globe. Many people don’t agree with the leaders and want to make a change, and whilst assassination may not be the answer, its the change occurring due to revolution that people strive for. Especially in the turbulent era of Trump.
For me, immersive theatre for political plays works brilliantly. In the case of Julius Caesar, herd mentality occurs. You find yourself chanting about something in favour you know nothing about. In Quiz, you voted for whether you thought the defendants were guilty or not guilty, without hearing both sides of the story. I can see more shows taking on the idea of a immersive theatre in the future, and with Nicholas Hynter taking charge of Bridge Theatre, I can see him leading the way.
Julius Caesar has now closed at Bridge Theatre, but encore NT Live performances are available in select cinemas.