Nicholas Hytner on Julius Caesar: 'I've staged many plays but never one that warns of such a terrible future'

A vain leader bent on absolute power; an elite that ignores the appeal of populism … after a Trumpian reimagining of Julius Caesar caused outrage in New York, the director explains why he’s bringing Shakespeare’s tragedy to a divided Britain

Brexit stage left … Michelle Fairley as Cassius and David Calder as Julius Caesar in the Bridge theatre production.
Photograph: Manuel Harlan

The leaders of the metropolitan elite are terrified that the state could slide at any moment into tyranny. They’re convinced that they’re working for the common good, but they’re equally concerned for their own position in a system that works well for them. Many of them went to school together. Their privilege comes with their class and education.

So they decide to get rid of the tyrant before he gets the chance to abuse his power any further. They suppose the streets will echo to the cry of freedom. They have no doubt that the people will share their fear for the future.

But their arrogance is their undoing. Their remoteness from the street blinds them to the fragility of their grip on popular opinion. The liberal establishment is trounced by a demagogue who appeals to the gut, and tells the stories the mob wants to hear. The masses turn on the liberals. The tyrant is replaced by another, younger and more ruthless. Once the body politic is infected with the virus of authoritarianism, it can’t be eradicated.

This is the story of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. No wonder every theatre company here and in the United States seems to be doing it.

“Rome’s leader, Julius Caesar, is a force unlike any the city has seen,” said New York’s Public theatre when it announced its production last summer. “Magnetic, populist, irreverent, he seems bent on absolute power. A small band of patriots, devoted to the country’s democratic traditions, must decide how to oppose him.”

And they went for it. Caesar had bouffant blond hair, and a red tie that hung pendulously below his waist. In a borough that voted nine to one against Donald Trump, the director Oskar Eustis delivered a sensational commentary on the state of the nation, though outraged Trumpists who hadn’t seen it (neither, to be honest, did I) bullied the Public theatre’s commercial sponsors into withdrawing their support. It’s hard to imagine better evidence of Shakespeare’s continued pugnacity as an analyst of contemporary politics.

From left: Tina Benko as Calpurnia, Gregg Henry as Julius Caesar, Teagle F Bougere as Casca, and Elizabeth Marvel as Marc Anthony.

From left: Tina Benko as Calpurnia, Gregg Henry as Julius Caesar, Teagle F Bougere as Casca, and Elizabeth Marvel as Marc Anthony. Photograph: Joan Marcus/AP

Shakespeare’s plays change with every new company of actors, and with every new audience. A leader bent on absolute power may be of less immediate concern in London than in New York, and I can’t see quite as much of Trump in Caesar as the Public theatre did. I hope Julius Caesar will work on the Bridge theatre audience in 2018 as it may have done at the Globe in 1599. Shakespeare’s dramatisations of the past were all permeated by current concerns. He used history as a way of exploring dangerous subject matter that would have had him thrown in jail if he’d gone at it directly. The vigour of the argument in favour of Caesar’s murder was no small achievement for a playwright who was subject to a monarch who had herself survived countless assassination attempts.

The Elizabethan authorities may have decided that the disastrous consequences of the assassination were warning enough for anyone who might still have had designs on the life of the ageing queen. And the play takes Caesar’s mighty past for granted (the conquest of Gaul trumps a string of failed casinos in Atlantic City), though it loses no opportunity to draw attention to his current decrepitude: he’s deaf in one ear, epileptic and wanders around in his night clothes worrying about his wife’s dreams.

But Julius Caesar is not, as it’s title suggests, about the tragic fall of a great man. It is rather a tragedy of irreconcilable opposites, maybe the first of its kind in English. You can’t leave this potential tyrant where he is, the play seems to say, but if you get rid of him, “there will a worse come in his place”. Action is inherently tragic, its results uncontrollable.

Which is maybe where the play reverberates here and now, as a clamorous premonition of our own destiny, in a Rome of the contemporary European imagination.

In New York, faced with a Trump presidency, you can see how necessary it must have been to give Brutus, Cassius and their “small band of patriots” custody of “the country’s democratic traditions”. In London, I wonder whether the Bridge theatre audience will be ready to see in them an unequivocal endorsement of liberal presumptions.

Blood and destruction … David Morrissey as Mark Anthony in the Bridge theatre production.

Blood and destruction … David Morrissey as Mark Anthony in the Bridge theatre production. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

Cassius (Michelle Fairley) is clear-eyed about the threat of “this age’s yoke”, eloquent in her defence of the status quo, and astute enough to know that any move against Caesar’s populist insurgency needs as its leader a politician with a popular following of his own. Which is why she turns to Brutus (Ben Whishaw), a man of famous intelligence, who “sits high in all the people’s hearts”. He is from a family renowned for its courage and integrity, and he thinks hard before he acts. He’s the antithesis of the blowhards who threaten the end of the liberal order.

You’d think nothing could go wrong for him. And he has such confidence in his own decency that he too thinks it will be plain sailing once the logic behind the removal of Caesar (David Calder) is explained to the people. He assures Mark Antony, over Caesar’s corpse, that the reasons for killing Caesar are “so full of good regard that were you, Antony, the son of Caesar, you should be satisfied”. He privately dismisses Antony as a sports-mad party animal; and he’s almost as censorious of his own associates if they disagree with him. “I am armed so strong in honesty,” he says, that criticism passes by him “as the idle wind”.

But he entirely misjudges the opposition. He assumes that he has only to lay out the facts; and after Caesar’s murder he goes public with a well-constructed argument in its defence. But despite the warnings of his colleagues, he trusts the people to listen to a plurality of opinion. He lets Mark Antony speak the eulogy at Caesar’s funeral.

It isn’t hard to recognise in Mark Antony (David Morrissey) the silver-tongued cynic whose relish for “domestic fury and fierce civil strife”, for “blood and destruction”, has echoed through recent European history. He is a tremendous player of the crowd, and a fabulous storyteller, though he pretends otherwise. “I am no orator,” he says, “but, as you know me all, a plain, blunt man.” Nevertheless, he describes Caesar’s murder in gripping, gory detail, though he doesn’t let on that he wasn’t there to witness it. His absence doesn’t stop him displaying the clothes Caesar was wearing when he died, and riffing on which assassin was responsible for each bloody rip in them. He produces Caesar’s will and promises every Roman a hand-out of 75 drachmas. Job done, he later conspires to change the will: he has a civil war to finance. So much for the suckers who cheered for him.

Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian

‘A contemporary
Julius Caesar does not need to travel far to suggest civil war on the streets of a great city’ … Nicholas Hytner. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian

If you come to see the play at the Bridge, you can choose to be one of those suckers: we’ve taken the seats out of the stalls so you can stand and be part of the crowd. You can also sit in comfort and watch what’s done to the crowd. You may seethe with rage at the lies they’re told; you may thrill to them. Either way, I hope there will be no way of avoiding the gulf between Roman and Roman.

Over the years, I’ve staged plays by Shakespeare that seemed to speak about the Iraq war, the 2008 financial crisis, and the power of the surveillance state, among many other contemporary preoccupations. I’ve never before staged a play that has said so much about our present, or warned of such a terrible future. It addresses directly the failure of dismayed liberals (count me as one of them) to understand and overcome the appeal of populism. It exposes the manipulative half-truths and outright falsehoods that are the populists’ stock in trade. It is unsentimental about the gullibility of the multitude: if Caesar had stabbed their mothers, says one of the establishment, they would have forgiven him. Seventy-five drachmas, £350 million per week, whatever it takes.

In Julius Caesar, once the populist genie is out of the bottle, there is nothing to stop the slide into violence, and a contemporary Julius Caesar does not need to travel far to suggest civil war on the streets of a great city. We may hope to avoid that dystopia in London, but the tragic destiny of a society that has succumbed to mutual incomprehension and loathing may be harder to escape.

Julius Caesar is at the Bridge theatre, London SE1, until 15 April.

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