Theatre in London

Bold, bullish and brash

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 23.02.2018

Julius Caesar is as relevant as ever, the perfect political play for today. That may very well be the conclusion you draw after seeing Nicholas Hytner’s visceral interpretation of the Shakespeare tragedy. There is the volatility of the crowds, there are the ruthless power struggles speeding up in front of your eyes, there is the relentless manipulation of audiences and the frail status of democracy. The first appearance of Caesar (David Calder) in a red baseball cap parallels that of a triumphant Donald Trump at one of his carefully orchestrated rallies, while Mark Antony’s tracksuit and trainers give the latter the popular touch so many politicians are currently dying for.

This is a promenade production, so you can watch from a seat in the round or join the mob in the pit, where you will be hustled around by stewards and encouraged to boo and cheer as well as hold up the odd poster.

Public and private moments alternate once the plot unfolds. We see Brutus, the dithering intellectual (an absolutely mesmerising Ben Whishaw), seek refuge at the desk in his study, where he pores over various political volumes before being swept up by the tide. His careful reasoning seems to get trapped in the currents of history. Meanwhile, a laidback Mark Antony (a fiery David Morrissey) is mostly out celebrating and getting drunk before rising to the challenge of giving the most famous funeral oration ever. He is a brilliant tactician appealing to his audience’s emotions, to their guts rather than their reasoning powers, so he swiftly wins the day.

Clearly, the plotters and their varying degrees of integrity are central to the play, as is the presence of Julius Caesar, the “dictator perpetuo” who knew how to whip up national pride and speak to the populace directly. He may get assassinated halfway through, yet his spectre refuses to go away.

Platforms rise and fall. Deafening civil war scenes contrast with the live rock concert that is in full swing as you enter the auditorium. Hytner’s Julius Caesar is loud, ferocious and intense, a production that never slips.

Meanwhile, a modern classic awaits you at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Ian Rickson directs Pinter’s The Birthday Party, whose first production closed down after a week in 1958 as audiences and critics (except for Harold Hobson of The Sunday Times) were confused and irritated by the lack of background information and the unexplained shifts of tone.

The play is set in a seaside boarding house run by Meg (Zoë Wanamaker), a doting and very naïve landlady, whose husband Petey (Peter Wight, the only calming presence in the play) is a deckchair attendant. For a year now they have had a resident guest, Stanley Webber (a brilliant Toby Jones), who claims to be an international pianist. When two new visitors, Goldberg (a superbly smarmy Stephen Mangan) and a very twitchy McCann (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), appear out of nowhere, a surprise birthday party is hastily organised for Stanley. It will soon turn into the party from hell. Interrogations and physical violence are on the cards. Yet why Stanley is being targeted remains unexplained. Still, his non-conformity, his resistance to Goldberg and McCann’s ruthless methods, becomes a celebration of the individual who fights back. No wonder Pinter later said that “Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do!”, the warning Petey addresses to Stanley when the latter is taken away, was one of the most important lines he had ever written! Both funny and terrifying, The Birthday Party is a play packed with uncanny dialogue and nameless terrors. It is being splendidly revived here.

Another play set in a bed- and-breakfast is currently running at the National Theatre. John, which opened off-Broadway in 2015, is by American dramatist Annie Baker and runs for three hours and 20 minutes. James Macdonald directs. Here we are not at the English seaside but in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, close to where the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War was fought. It is an eerily slow and at times hilarious play that draws you into a world of ghosts and sticky silences. Stories and lives unfold against a creepy set where every surface is covered in china dolls, fairy Christmas lights and all sorts of other knick-knacks. There is a piano that starts playing when touched and a grandfather clock that Meris, the eccentric and very chirpy landlady (an excellent Marylouise Burke) sets before each scene. In this hyperreal world the boundaries between the living and the dead have been curiously erased. The dolls appear to be frozen in fury.

Julius Caesar, Bridge Theatre, SE1, to April 15 (will come to Utopia cinema on March 22 as part of NT Live); The Birthday Party, Harold Pinter Theatre, W1, to April 14; John, National Theatre, SE1, to March 3

Janine Goedert
© 2018 d’Lëtzebuerger Land