Bold, in its way, but Ben Whishaw is ill-suited to Shakespeare: Julius Caesar reviewed

10 February 2018

9:00 AM

10 February 2018

9:00 AM

Nicholas Hytner’s new show is a modern-dress Julius Caesar, heavily cut and played in the round. It runs for two hours, no interval. The action opens with the audience grouped around a central stage where a ramshackle rock gig descends into a riot. The play unfolds like an illegal rave at a warehouse. It’s bold, in its way, and some of it works.

A couple of the Roman senators are played by actresses and the text has been bodged to suit the cult of gender neutrality. ‘Romans’ is substituted for ‘men’ in Mark Antony’s famous line, ‘so are they all, all honourable men’. This small change is curiously painful to hear. It turns the ominous finality of Shakespeare’s original into a tuneless clatter.

Visually the play is eccentrically suburban. Michelle Fairley (Cassius, believe it or not) looks like a dinner lady stranded at a bus stop. She wears a blue Primark raincoat with a handbag slung over her shoulder. A handbag? She’s a Roman general fighting a civil war. And we’re asked to believe that she plucked David Calder’s burly Caesar from the Tiber and saved him from drowning. He’s twice her size. Calder’s Caesar is all right. He’s a lot older than 56, and far too giggly at first, but he calms down and becomes more statesmanlike later. His costumes are poor: a leather jacket and a Soviet general’s greatcoat. I saw Soviet togs in this play in 1980 and even then they looked dated. David Morrissey’s Mark Antony is good but flawed. Like Calder, he’s too old. And why the silvery beard? Mark Antony is a sex god, not Captain Bird’s Eye. Morrissey is blessed with a beautiful, hypnotic voice which gives him a real air of authority when he converts the Roman mob to his cause. This long passage is excellent and the contemporary setting works well.

The star attraction is Ben Whishaw (Brutus) and it’s becoming clear that he is ill-suited to Shakespeare. Most of the Bard’s great roles are warriors and Whishaw lacks the physical and spiritual mettle for soldiering. Slight, gentle, troubled, dreamy, he’d be fine as D.H. Lawrence or T.S Eliot, Aldous Huxley or James Joyce. He’s probably the only actor alive who could play both Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West. But he’s no Brutus. His get-up here plainly suggests a 1920s Bohemian. He wears a half-hearted beard, a trench coat, and a pair of black-rimmed specs. We see him plotting Caesar’s assassination while seated at an oak desk (is he editing The Criterion on the side?), and when he produces a socking great pistol from a drawer he touches it with anxious wonder, as if he were Mother Teresa handling a rechargeable vibrator. The decision to match Whishaw’s Brutus with a female Cassius gives their squabbling friendship, so exquisitely drawn by Shakespeare, an air of heterosexual romance. Mad, daft and wrong.

Hampstead’s new play Dry Powder looks at a financial endeavour once known as ‘asset-stripping’. Nowadays these profiteers use the label ‘venture capitalism’, which is like a serial killer calling himself a ‘palliative care specialist’. American writer Sarah Burgess takes a big risk by focusing on characters noted for their avarice and cynicism. Even riskier, she makes them live up to the stereotype. Everyone here is cold, sinister and ruthlessly greedy. But the results are magnificent. Mamet-like in its precision, savage in its depiction of human malice, the play has the saving grace of even-handedness. It lets us reach our own judgment.

Burgess skilfully lays out her plot so that the central dilemma — jobs versus profits — enters our minds by stealth. A big US firm is on offer at a knockdown price and the vultures are secretly plotting to shift production to Asia once the sale is complete. The owner, Jeff, has promised job security to his US staff and one of the bankers, Seth, whose wife is pregnant, argues that the US factory should be retained, purely for PR purposes. Seth’s partners outsmart him and offer Jeff a ‘bonus’ (or bribe) and the choice becomes his. To betray his workers or to spurn a fortune?

The cast of four is led by Hayley Atwell (Jenny), a dollar-monster whose lust for profit is a cover for her emotional emptiness. Atwell turns this heartless and humourless ogre into a figure of genuine pathos. At the end, she delivered a monologue that had me sighing with mirth and sorrow. An extraordinary effect. All the ingredients are here for a transfer: big star, small cast, simple design. West End producers are often accused of being philistines who stuff theatreland with risk-free revivals or Spotify musicals. The truth is that they dream of a show like this: a whip-smart new play that salutes the audience’s intelligence and won’t break the bank. It’s very funny too, but these are the saddest laughs you’ll ever hear.

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