Theatre: A Caesar so lifelike, the audience ducks

An honourable man: Ben Whishaw as an intellectual Brutus, in Julius Caesar

At Bridge Theatre, near Tower Bridge, you can stand or sit for Nicholas Hytner’s in-the-round, promenade production of Julius Caesar, one of the best political thrillers ever written. It is always topical and will continue to be pertinent as long as there are dictators, bloody coups and rampaging crowds.

The play’s popularity in Britain began with Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s spectacular production, designed by Lawrence Alma-Tadema in 1898. Nowadays theatre managers can no longer afford the huge crowd scenes Tree could command.

Hytner gets the paying public to be the crowd and it is their constant presence which gives his production its immediacy and urgency. This is particularly so when we get to the assassination, the speeches in the forum, the murder of Cinna the poet and the battle scenes. The excitement is visceral: the audience ducks when the shooting begins.

There is a strong cast. David Calder is Caesar. Ben Whishaw is an intellectual Brutus; politically naïve and inexperienced in warfare, he makes three fatal decisions. David Morrissey’s Antony is a blunt man who can easily whip up the fickle, gullible crowd to mutiny.

Back in 1958, the critics gave The Birthday Party such a hammering at its London premiere that it closed the same week. Harold Hobson in the Sunday Times came to its rescue: “I am willing to risk whatever reputation I have as a judge of plays and say that Mr Pinter possesses the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London.”

At the Harold Pinter Theatre we see Stanley (Toby Jones), a former concert-party pianist living in a seedy seaside boarding house, who is visited by two sinister men, who interrogate, humiliate and brainwash him before carting him off in a black limousine. We never find out what Stanley has done; nor do we learn who his tormentors are. They behave as if they were two hitmen in a B-movie; but they could just as easily be two malevolent male nurses taking Stanley back to the asylum. The line of demarcation between those who are to be locked up and those who do the locking up is thin. One of the main pleasures of Ian Rickson’s excellently cast production is listening to Stephen Mangan delivering the idiosyncratic non-sequitur phraseology with such confident relish.

Dominic Dromgoole’s year-long celebration of Oscar Wilde at Vaudeville Theatre continues with Lady Windermere’s Fan, an attack on Victorian hypocrisy, which had its premiere in 1892. Wilde was going to call the play A Good Woman until his mother said the title was too mawkish and nobody could possibly be interested in a play about a good woman. The amazing thing about the dialogue is how often it anticipates Wilde’s own spectacular fall two years later. Sadly, there is so much inadequate acting, and miscasting and misdirection by Kathy Burke, that the audience fails to take the melodrama seriously enough.

Annie Baker has been quoted as saying she wants to reassess what a play is: a worthy aim, but John, a mystery drama over three long hours set in a B&B in Gettysburg, will, I suspect, prove too obtuse, too long, and too slow for National Theatre audiences.