Picking just a few feathers from Ben Whishaw’s cap, let’s cite the nose in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer; Q, the spymasters’ technocrat supreme in the James Bond thrillers Skyfall and Spectre; and the voice of Paddington Bear on the big screen and TV (lately opposite Her Majesty the Queen, for a spot of Jubilee tea). “For me, it’s important to keep a level of anonymity,” this master of transformations told The Telegraph in 2013. “As an actor, your job is to persuade people that you’re someone else. So if you’re constantly telling people about yourself, I think you’re shooting yourself in the foot.”
Whoever he is in private, in public Whishaw totally kills it in Shakespeare. Case in point: his Brutus in Nicholas Hytner’s modern-dress promenade production of Julius Caesar, filmed live at the Bridge Theatre in London in March 2018. Alone in his book-strewn study, contemplating Caesar’s murder with cold-blooded dispassion, he’s in the realm of theory. But the conspirators who woo him to their cause are bent on action. As their chosen figurehead, Brutus validates their enterprise—only to second-guess them time and again, dictating high-minded decisions that lead straight to catastrophe.
In Hytner’s production, the timeless dynamic feels eerily contemporary. With a Caesar who tosses his red MAGA-style baseball cap to the groundlings, street bands blaring “We’re not gonna take it anymore,” and war scenes that anticipate the ninth circle of Mariupol, Shakespeare makes a seamless transition to the second Elizabethan Age.
“The skies are painted with unnumber’d sparks,” Caesar raves moments before his murder, “They are all fire and every one doth shine, / But there’s but one in all doth hold his place…” What dominates? His majesty or his megalomania? In the title role, David Calder keeps us guessing. As Caesar’s avenger Mark Antony, David Morrissey works in a very different key, infusing the rhetoric of his rabble-rousing funeral oration with raw emotion.
Elsewhere, much of the casting is nontraditional. In Shakespeare—surprise!—the conspirators are all men. Here, Michelle Fairley, of yore Catelyn Stark in Game of Thrones, appears as the “lean and hungry” lead conspirator Cassius, seething with personal grievance. Adjoa Andoh, currently the badass Lady Danbury of Bridgerton, is Cassius’s confederate Casca, the ironist with the surefire laugh line, “it was Greek to me.”
Calder’s Caesar makes no bones about his disapproval of women in public life. “Let me have about me men that are fat,” he snaps at the sight of Fairley’s Cassius, “Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o’ nights.” But the female presence pays unsuspected dividends, notably for Whishaw. In addition to the intellectual force he brings to his Brutus, there’s erotic charisma of which the character seems unaware: behind those Clark Kent glasses and the sexy stubble, Whishaw has never looked more Golden Age Hollywood. No wonder the conspirators fall for him.
Julius Caesar is available for streaming on the National Theatre at Home Web site
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii