Tyranny is a Red Hat: Caesar at The Bridge

I have two responses to the Bridge Theatre’s Julius Caesar, and that they are only tangentially related is both a strength and a weakness of the show. Which will make sense by the end of this post, I hope.

First: I liked it! I am desperately in love with Michelle Fairley’s spiky, besuited Cassius. Though I implied otherwise in my last post, I do love a well-done female Cassius, and this is one of them, especially because she was not the token woman in the group of conspirators. The mid-storm conversation between Cassius and Casca (Adjoa Andoh) happening between two very smart, grimly determined women was really great.

Ben Whishaw’s deeply nerdy Brutus turned the character into a caricature of the much-mocked liberal elites, a highly intelligent, passionate scholar who seems to be turning his philosophy into direct action for the first time in his life, and doesn’t see why the rest of the world isn’t as fired up by complex philosophy as he is. He can’t break his nuanced, convoluted thoughts down into crowd-pleasing sound-bites, just as he can’t compromise his principles to raise money for his legions or to give ethically-dubious but necessary allies a pass. In Brutus, the play becomes about the ways in which the loftiest, most well-meant philosophy is no match for empty rhetoric that rouses the spirit.

Which is what leads into point two: I was startled to find myself not just annoyed, but actually offended by the production’s Trump-related imagery. The red hats with CAESAR embroidered on the front in a white serif font are the most obvious example; they were worn by characters, and were also available for the audience to purchase.

It offends me because the play is incapable of seriously entertaining the actual, contemporary questions that attend the potential death of an actual, contemporary figure like Trump. Reinforcing the already classist, sexist, and racist media tendency to limit discussions of Trump’s danger to hypothetical questions about American identity when there are people whose literal lives are at risk because of things he has already done and will do is shallow and counter-productive. I don’t blame Shakespeare for not raising these issues, but for a play now to insist on direct contemporary relevance and yet leave no room for considering the arguments of the people who would be/are most immediately impacted by such a leader’s policies is irresponsibly narrow. Shakespeare isn’t always the right vehicle for saying what needs to be said.

Because people have died because of Trump. More people will die because of Trump. His presidency is not a political abstraction about the powers of populism, it is a presently threatening fact. Trump and his stupid hats are not just punchy imagery to use to decorate your performance and give it some contemporary resonance, they are the banners of a movement which, within the past year, has caused innocent people to die.

This is all particularly uncomfortable when it comes to an immersive production, and raises interesting questions about immersive productions in general: what happens when you are being asked to immerse yourself in an experience you actively oppose? I refuse to even imaginatively participate in a pretend Trump rally under a symbol (that is, the hat) that, in the United States, has become an explicit emblem of prejudice and hate. I did not clap for him, and I did not cheer. I wasn’t standing in the pit, so I was able to enforce that distance for myself. I’m not sure how I would have done so down there, or if I would have been allowed to.

It is both damning and a saving grace that the Trumpian ideas basically disappeared after the play’s first three scenes. It’s proof that it’s not a particularly effective concept: it doesn’t map well onto the language the characters actually use about the political situation, and thus becomes difficult to sustain (unless you slap some novelty wigs on various characters, I guess). Fortunately, this meant that my distaste for the enforced parallel didn’t ruin the show for me, and I was able to set that soon-irrelevant imagery aside and enjoy what was actually happening.

Review: Young Marx

Yesterday, after having come under fire for an all-white, all-male written and directed opening season, The Bridge Theatre announced another production: a new Martin McDonagh play to be directed by Matthew Dunster. As exciting as it should be to have a brand new, well-funded theatre company in the London scene, The Bridge isn’t offering much hope yet that it is actually going to make a radical difference in the landscape.

But what about the actual plays? The first, Richard Bean and Clive Coleman’s Young Marx, directed by company artistic director Nicholas Hytner, feels like the company as a whole: yes, of course it’s fine to have fairly traditional plays created by white men and cast with token diversity (but never so blindly that you actually have an actor of color as one of the leads, of course). You will come up with some pretty good– maybe even great!– plays like that, and obviously no one can stop you. But Young Marx and the Bridge Theatre would be so much better if they weren’t.

Young Marx is about Marx when he’s young. He’s impoverished, living in London, and struggling to write Das Kapital. He feels alienated from his revolutionary group and from his family. This is the kind of play where the long-suffering wife of the man of genius is told, “But he needs you!” and she replies, “But what about what I need?” and no one ever answers. It’s the kind of play where every named adult female character is in love with the man of genius lead.

The most intriguing parts of the play center around the Marxes’ community of radical political refugees, devoted to spreading communism through the world. They turn out to be somewhat beside the point, but watching them, I found my mind drifting to Hamilton. Now, I will argue for the fundamental conservatism of Hamilton all day long, but the casting is a pretty brilliant dramaturgical device, and one that would strengthen Young Marx in the same way as it does the musical. How much better would it be if all the play’s jabs about immigrants and refugees, its air of mistrust and paranoia, its running jokes about police brutality, were being enacted on people of color, people whose foreign accents were real, not (mostly) white British people? As with Hamilton, we would understand the uncertainty and danger of Marx’s position so much more keenly and viscerally. Any other consideration aside, diversity would lead, quite simply, to better storytelling.

And then, too, we might have more than one-line references to the women’s importance to the movement (“She’s a founding member!”) and an understanding of history that admits them as full, genuine participants in the politics and lives of its central characters, not just nagging wives, devoted baby vessels, and cheeky contributors of famous lines in famous works the men are writing (though this sensibility would certainly not be derived from Hamilton). There’s an awareness that in this day and age, women must be acknowledged– they must be present at the radical meeting, even if they’re never given a name– but there’s still no genuine understanding that a sense of history that shunts them to the side and consistently sexualizes them is not actually objective or inevitable. That announcing that you’ll be doing some plays by female writers and directors eventually, but sticking them all under “future projects” and then adding yet another show created by white guys to your inaugural season is not the same as committing to diversity.

But, you know, I get it. If you get offered the new Martin McDonagh play, you don’t turn it down. Rory Kinnear and Oliver Chris are talented and charming, and they put in good shifts here. It’s exciting to see ambitious new work, and I love history plays. The view from the cheap seats in the back is actually pretty good, and it’s awesome to leave the theatre and see Tower Bridge right there, all lit up. Several people stopped to take pictures as they were going out.

But it’s just… it could be better.