Julius Caesar, Bridge Theatre, London ★★★★

When the Bridge Theatre was first announced, much was made of the versatility of its auditorium. Nicholas Hytner, the theatre’s co-founder and former artistic director of the National Theatre, made a point of describing it as an “infinitely flexible” space.

The theatre’s opening season has been curated to show that flexibility off. After the “proscenium arch with revolve” conventionality of Young Marx, which I did not much care for, we now get a thrilling Shakespeare production, performed in the round and with the stalls seats replaced by a promenading space.

I do not know the script of Julius Caesar well enough to know how much has been jettisoned to give Hytner’s new production its sense of brisk pace, which runs to a trim two hours without interval. I have only season one other production – Gregory Doran’s Africa-set 2012 production for the RSC, which similarly played without interval in Stratford-upon-Avon, but gained a commercially valuable drinks break when it reached its touring venues.

What impresses most about this play is the tautness and gripping tension of its first hour. Opening scenes of a city in celebration at the fall of Pompey become, in Hytner’s modern-day setting, a rock concert, us promenaders transforming into a (rather genteel) mosh pit. Stewards sell drinks and Caesar souvenirs throughout the audience, any allusions to modern day politics limited to the red peaked truckers’ caps that are associated with a certain other rabble-rousing politician (the ones available here read ’Caesar’ rather than ’Make Rome Great Again’, but the inference is there).

When David Calder’s Caesar first bestrides the stage, his outfit of tie and leather flight jacket reminds one more of Iraq War-era GW Bush than Trump. There needs to be no specific reference to a specific contemporary figure, though: the idea that his drive and leadership may inspire some, and repulse others, is well caught.

It is when the rebellious Cassius (Michelle Fairley) starts to draw together her co-conspirators that the true heart of the play begins to emerge. Top of her list, of course, is Brutus, here played by Ben Whishaw. Initially, Whishaw draws on his usual library of nervous tics: so many of his characters feel like young academicians on the brink of coming down with the flu, an impression reinforced here by all the conspirators wrapping up warmly in overcoats and scarves.

The interplay between Fairley and Whishaw fizzles with intensity, leant additional charge by the introduction of Adjoa Andoh’s spiky Casca. And while the modern day setting necessitates the use of guns over swords, the assassination is, if you’ll pardon the pun. well executed.

And being up close to the action really helps here. While much of the time, the promenaders in the pit are standing watching the players on raised stages, much as they do at Shakespeare’s Globe a little way up the river, the proximity to the action – which often spills off from the ever-changing blocks of staging into the mob itself – lends an air of vitality to all events (credit is due here to the stage management crew, whose subtle marshalling of the crowd to allow sets and staging to be swiftly reconfigured ensures that scene changes never interrupt the escalating tension).

As a play that contains some of Shakespeare’s finest oratorical flourishes, it is David Morrissey’s Mark Anthony who gets the best lines at Caesar’s funeral. Both his and Brutus’s speeches are amplified as if at giant outdoor assemblages of mourners, just one of several moments cleverly enhanced by Paul Arditti’s sound design. But it is with Anthony’s speech over Caesar’s body that Morrissey truly excels.

In truth, I must admit to finding the outbreak of war after Caesar’s death to be much the least satisfying element of the play’s structure, but the pace of Hytner’s production minimises any dissatisfaction. As the power vacuum forces the Romans to descend into hostilities, the best moments come, once again, with Fairley and Whishaw as Cassius and Brutus are nearly forced apart. And while Whishaw’s Brutus never really shakes off that academic portrayal, it kind of works as a man who finds himself leading an army in a role for which he is completely ill-suited.

As the balloons descend upon the coronation of a new Caesar, bouncing across the remnants of a futile civil war, in Brutus’ defeat we see a success: of traditional power structures in Rome maybe, but of a brand new, and truly flexible theatre most definitely.

Continues until 15 April.

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