If you are lucky enough to get a ticket for Julius Caesar at London’s Bridge theatre, prepare to join the mob. Actors turn into stewards and herd most of the audience around the stage as if they are crowds at a political rally. A live band blasts out rock songs and urges us to chant Caesar’s name, as the production drives home the parallels between the Roman dictator and today’s populist leaders.
The spirit of Donald Trump is with us: Mark Antony and Caesar follow the dress code for billionaires posing as friends of the American people when they appear in tracksuits and baseball caps. There was a hint of Jeremy Corbyn too, although the band missed a trick when they played Seven Nation Army and forgot to demand the audience sing ‘Oh Julius Caesar’.
It’s an invigorating production. Every modern trick the director pulls – the rock music, the women playing male roles, the audience doubling as mobs and armies – is enlightening rather than irritating. No more so than in the casting of Michelle Fairley as Cassius. Her tense, affectionate and ultimately doomed friendship with Brutus felt more touching because it was a relationship between a man and a woman rather than brothers-in-arms.
The Bridge drives home the fickleness of the mob – a favourite theme of Shakespeare, as of every anti-democratic writer. While Caesar is alive, the crowd hails him. When Brutus justifies Caesar’s assassination, the citizens cry, ‘Let him be Caesar’. When Mark Antony speaks next, he turns them against Brutus, and they bellow, ‘Revenge! About! Seek! Burn! Fire! Kill! Slay! Let not a traitor live!’
Shakespeare’s genius is that every age can find itself in him. But not completely. The trouble with our mobs is not that they are fickle but that they are nowhere near fickle enough. So many writers reach for the language of cultism today because the most shocking feature of today’s charlatans is their ability to hang on to their core vote long after their every promise has turned to dust. Donald Trump may have the lowest approval rating of any post-war US President at the end of their first year in office, but 35 per cent of voters will back him whatever he does . To them, he remains the people’s champion in its struggle with the elite, despite giving the elite an enormous and unaffordable tax cut, while asking the masses to be content with pennies. Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity among Labour’s sheep-like members is undiminished by his complete indifference to their bleats about Brexit. Cults stay firm, even after conclusive evidence proves their faith to have been groundless, even when the £350 million a week for the NHS never arrives. They do not cheer Brutus one minute and Antony the next. The world might be a better place if they did.
The parallels with demagogues’ opponents seem to me to be more telling. The ‘Tragedy of Julius Caesar’ could as well be titled the ‘Tragedy of Brutus and Cassius’. Brutus thinks the assassins need only kill Caesar and the grateful Romans will restore the Republic. He stands over Caesar’s bleeding corpse and instructs his friends
Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords:
Then walk we forth, even to the market-place,
And, waving our red weapons o’er our heads,
Let’s all cry ‘Peace, freedom and liberty!’
Brutus is so confident Romans’ love of liberty will be enough, he agrees to allow Antony to speak to the people, and ignores Cassius’s prescient warning that Antony sees Romans as ‘but sheep’ to be herded. Brutus does not understand that after a great deed you need to a great plan to secure the future, and allows Antony the chance to turn the mob against the conspirators.
The day after I was at the Bridge, I had a talk with a Labour MP. She and her colleagues thought all they needed to do in 2016 was declare they had no confidence in Corbyn. Surely, no leader of a political party would have the brass neck to carry on after losing a confidence vote of his MPs by 172–40. They had no idea what to do when Corbyn defied them. They were stunned rather than forearmed when the far left imitated Mark Antony and tore into them as plotters and traitors.
‘What plan do your leaders have now?’ I asked.
‘Plan is putting it a bit strong. To say they even have a strategy is an exaggeration. Their tactic is to do nothing and hope the far left discredits itself.’
Looking around there is one other group that has accomplished a great deed without having the smallest idea what to do next. They have stabbed their swords into our closest alliance, walked into the market place bathed in blood, and cried to the plebs that peace, freedom, liberty are now ours, as if the mere incantation of slogans could ever be enough. As the collapse of the government into feuding cliques shows, they too do not have a plan, a strategy or even a tactic. The rest of us can only let the thought sink in that they don’t know in which direction to herd us. After rousing the mob, a satisfied Mark Antony says
Mischief, thou art afoot,
Take thou what course thou wilt!
He might have been the British foreign secretary.