‘I do fear the people’: theatre and the problem with audiences

I had the enormous privilege of seeing Julius Caesar last night at London’s newest theatre. It’s one of the greatest Shakespeare productions I’ve ever seen: visceral, violently physical, exuberantly political but also jewelled with exquisite details. A few newspaper reviews have said that because the show is loud and frenetic it is therefore not terribly subtle. They are wrong: this production is packed full of brilliant performances from every member of the company. You could base a whole review around the way  Michelle Fairley’s Cassius and Ben Whishaw’s Brutus hold and use their hands throughout this piece: in gesture and in posture, their hands are by turn nervy, threatening, explorative and cerebral. Yes, cerebral hands: to be filed alongside handy brains.

This is not a review, however, but more an attempt to articulate why this production made me uncomfortable as well as thrilled by its take on this deeply unhappy Shakespeare play.  The production is staged in promenade, with some of the audience invited, in the words of the production webpage, to ‘become part of the action and join the crowd of hundreds that stand amongst the street party greeting Caesar’s triumphant return to Rome, the congress that witnesses his murder and the civil war that erupts in the wake of his assassination’. This turned out to mean that the audience is not only politicised but weaponised, and we often had our political positions forced upon us in the form of hats, banners and location within the space, even as the space itself kept exploding (often literally) into new shapes, patterns and locations, with the audience cajoled, shoved and screamed at until they learnt their place.

This was all brilliantly done, but it made me wonder why a theatre feels the need to teach its audience its place – especially when that place turned out to be ever-changing, constantly exploding, associated with terror, and involved being shouted at, pushed or hit and being made to feel unsafe. At times I found myself missing whole scenes because actors or stagehands were too busy shouting at us to move out of the way. I was blinded by lights, deafened by noise, and at one point I found myself being shouted at to move in two opposite directions and then being pushed and stood on. If you failed to get out of the way, you immediately found yourself being run down by a piece of theatrical equipment. Why would a London theatre go out of its way to recreate the London commute?

The Bridge Theatre is drunk on its own possibilities and power (a situation the play itself suggests might bring its own problems), and the show never stops discovering new tricks to pull out of its space. The producers seem so preoccupied with what they could do with their new theatre that they never stopped to think if they should. Well, I’ve seen Jurassic Park and I know where that leads. After all, the conspirators kill Caesar because they’re worried he’s going to turn into a Tyrannosaurus Rex. If the production isn’t careful, it’s going to end up leaning down off the stage and biting an audience member in half as they sit on the toilet. Or, you know, something a bit like that.

I’m not too sure about the ethics or politics of this. At the very least, the company seem impressively oblivious to the risks of a lawsuit. And the dangers are not just physical. The production as it currently stands seems to have lost sight of the possibility that some members of the audience may have PTSD, hearing or mobility issues, be temporarily affected by stage effects, or not speak English terribly well. Looking at my fellow audience members, I could see some real cultural issues in play too: many people seeing this show will be from cultures in which political protests of this kind are unthinkable. Even height is an access issue in this production: I’m 6 foot, and I found it hard to see. And, as I say, I got pushed, pulled and stood on: how does a theatre decide that it has the right to physically manhandle its audience? I’m a former theatre duty manager, and perhaps that experience makes it difficult for me to switch off my health-and-safety spectacles, but I say with all seriousness that this production looked and felt unsafe to me. It literally caused me pain, and it presumably did the same to others.

But aside from ethics and safety, what of the production’s politics: is it ok that the show wants us there as the crowd, but also wants to treat us like a mob? Is it ok to invite democratic or popular audience behaviour into your space but to then aggressively crowd-control it with shoving, shouting and enforced relocations around the space? If you’re going to use your audience to explore crowd mentality, doesn’t it then become hypocritical to use staging and audience manipulation techniques which are themselves authoritarian and anti-democratic? Sometimes it felt as though the production needed us there as a crowd more than we needed to be there as audience members. We weren’t always allowed to watch; indeed, sometimes theatre staff would snap angrily at us to stop being an audience because we needed to get out of their way. This is a production which wants to teach its audience to learn to behave – by which I mean both perform for them as part of the show, and also just to do as we were told. Again, the politics of that feels deeply unfortunate, and it makes the production even less democratic than the play it’s trying to stage. In the wake of recent shootings, it felt especially bold to ask us all to drop to the floor as Caesar is shot. I’d love to know more about the ethical and political discussions that underpinned these sorts of decisions. I’m frankly surprised that such discussions haven’t been made more public. Isn’t public debate at the core of this play?

What’s most impressive about all this is that it makes the production even more angry and unhappy about ordinary human beings than the original play. That seems a pretty extraordinary place for a new theatre to end up: audiences, we hate those bastards. From its opening line, the text of Julius Caesar is furiously indignant about ordinary people having the audacity to gather in public and be happy, and in some ways it feels as though the Bridge production never quite snaps out of this attitude:

Hence! Home, you idle creatures, get you home!

Is this a holiday? What! Know you not,

Being mechanical, you ought not walk

Upon a labouring day[?]

‘Being mechanical’ is key here: working people need to learn their place. As Flavius puts it later in the same scene, it is a politician’s duty to ‘drive away the vulgar from the streets’. Failure to do this will make Caesar so powerful that he can ‘keep us all in servile fearfulness’, whereas Flavius would prefer to keep only most of us in servile fearfulness. It seems odd that a theatre that has just staged Young Marx should respond quite so enthusiastically to this idea.

Elsewhere in the play Cassius feels the need to say that he is not ‘a common laugher’, and Casca sees the ‘common herd’ as a ‘rabblement’ hooting with ‘their sweaty night-caps’ and ‘stinking breath’. And the play takes great care to show us some of this: the political fickleness of the crowd is the subject of the opening scene, it’s there in Brutus’ and Antony’s public speeches and, in its most violent form, in the lynching of Cinna the poet.

This continues a general thread in Shakespeare’s work which is disgusted by working people in public and in crowds: the Jack Cade scenes in 2 Henry VI, the Duke of York’s speech in Richard II, Coriolanus’ ordinary-human-phobia. If recent scholarship is right to identify Shakespeare’s hand in a key crowd scene in Sir Thomas More, we might ask ourselves why Shakespeare was considered by his peers to be a safe pair of hands when it came to showing ordinary people in crowds in a way which wouldn’t get the play in trouble with the authorities. Was Shakespeare seen as a trusted, authoritarian voice who could stage dangerous scenes in ways that reinforced aristocratic hierarchy? That certainly seems to be how the Bridge Theatre production sees him now. Going back to Julius Caesar, when Brutus says ‘I do fear the people/ Choose Caesar for their king’, it’s perfectly possible that the first line says as much about the play on its own as it does in combination with the second. This play is terrified of people.

Julius Caesar sits towards the end of an entire reign’s worth of cultural anxiety about the idea of the people, the crowd and political popularity. ‘Popularity’ itself is a dirty Elizabethan word, and enters the English language at the time of Elizabeth’s succession. As Emma Smith and I have tried to show elsewhere, its first recorded use in English is in a document celebrating Elizabeth’s succession to the throne, where she is warned to avoid ‘a colour of popularity’, which works like ‘entrapments, to bring such as believe the same into the snare and danger of their lives’. In Roman times, the tract continues, ‘there was nothing so hurtful, nothing so unconstant, as was the people’s favour’. People stink, and so does any politician who tries to rule via popularity. So Elizabeth comes to the throne in the midst of this advocacy of anti-popularity. ‘Popularity’, after all, derives from the Latin for ‘people’, and in a hierarchical monarchy like Tudor England, the people are the opposite of good governance.

Ten years into Elizabeth’s reign, the Northern Rebellion is blamed on ‘popularities’ which encourage powerful aristocrats ‘to a wrong way of climbing’. Ten years later still, the word was being casually listed amongst other words which show how awful it was considered to be: John Jones in 1579 warns ‘rulers, potentates, prelates and preachers’ to avoid ‘popularity, mutiny and sedition’. In the Elizabethan mind, the first of those words guarantees the other two. By 1601, two years after Julius Caesar is onstage, Francis Bacon implies that the Earl of Essex was executed as a result of his ‘points of popularity[,] which every man took notice and note of, [such] as his affable gestures, open doors, making his table and his bed so popularly places of audience to suitors’. That’s right, his bed: Essex, what a massive playboy.

Julius Caesar is written at the height of excitement and anxiety about Essex’s popularity, and builds itself on all these fears about ordinary humans in the public space, which it sees as disgusting, dangerous potential members of a lynch mob. And although we now celebrate him as the archetypal humanist, a great lover of all kinds of people, Shakespeare clearly didn’t like working people very much. Bottom, Dogberry, Jack Cade’s followers: if you’re of working stock in Shakespeare, you’re usually stupid and unable to express yourself terribly well.

We often excuse Shakespeare’s poor representation of marginal people (compare his problems with women) and assume that they’re a sign of his times, but they aren’t. Compare Shakespeare’s depiction of a servant in love with his mistress to Webster’s: in The Duchess of Malfi, Antonio is some kind of romantic hero; in Twelfth Night, Malvolio is a buffoon whose name means Ill Will. We can look to other depictions of working life – all the humans in Lyly’s Galatea, or to Webster’s Bosola or Middleton and Rowley’s De Flores – to see how odd Shakespeare’s position is.

Not all of these examples are positive representations of working people, but at least their plays take them seriously as people. Shakespeare’s distaste for working people is particularly interesting given that he worked in the first major commercial art form made by and for working people. Some of the few things we know about Shakespeare biographically is that he exploited financial power and he bought himself a coat of arms. This is not a person at peace with his own or other people’s working identity and it’s there in his plays for all to see. It’s striking that our culture generally prefers not to see it, and it’s another reason why it’s worth putting Shakespeare back into his own context, as our research project, amongst others, seeks to do. But instead our culture goes on trotting out unstoppable numbers of Shakespeare productions, and, in the Bridge Theatre’s case, taking the play’s distaste for the people out on the production’s own audience.

Shakespeare’s Caesar is frightened of people like Cassius who are thin or scrawny, with ‘a lean and hungry look’, just as he is in Shakespeare’s source, Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch. But then Shakespeare’s character continues with thoughts that do not derive from Plutarch:

Yet if my name were liable to fear,

I do not know the man I should avoid

So soon as that spare Cassius. He reads much,

He is a great observer and he looks

Quite through the deeds of men: he loves no plays,

As thou dost, Antony; he hears no music;

Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort

As if he mocked himself and scorned his spirit

That could be moved to smile at any thing.

‘He reads much’; ‘he loves no plays’: these are strange criticisms for a writer and a playwright to put in the mouth of a stage character, and it’s interesting to think about the effect each statement has for someone watching this play in 1599 or reading it in the 1623 Shakespeare play collection. A 1599 audience member would presumably feel aligned with Team Caesar and Antony, loving plays; a 1623 the reader might well feel aligned with Team Cassius, reading much. But might there be an implicit articulation in this passage of the play’s wider anxieties about people: people who read, people who observe, people who look, people who smile? And this is despite another side to this play: love and friendship, which characters mention surprisingly often. I’m not sure how much love and friendship I saw in the production last night, but perhaps I was blinded by its consistent representation of hostility to its own audience.

But what’s fascinating about the Bridge Theatre’s new production is that it seems to have caught the text’s terror and distaste for popularity and developed an even greater paranoia about these things at the heart of its new show. Popularity, let us remember, literally means peopleness, and this is not a people-friendly show. Perhaps this is the production we deserve, in all senses of that word, as many countries around the world confront the dangers of authoritarian rule and government by the people.

As I said at the outset, I loved this show, and I was blown away in particular by its ensemble performers, the immediacy of its storytelling, its realisation of fictional spaces and the urgency of its investigation of the play’s politics. But I wonder at what price these things come. Brutus tells us that ‘the state of man’, when considering political action, is ‘Like to a little kingdom’, and ‘suffers then/ The nature of an insurrection’. Well, this production wants us to suffer an insurrection without itself suffering any of the dangers of allowing for any kind of real audience freedom. The play may tell us to ‘get you home’, but in this production I found myself being told more often to ‘STAND OVER THERE! MOVE! NOW! OK NOW MOVE OVER THERE! STOP WATCHING THE PLAY! STOP IT! WHAT ARE YOU EVEN DOING HERE?’ I’m not usually a textual purist, but even I want to point out that these phrases are not in the play, and it was pretty fascinating, as well as alarming, to hear the angry doggerel the production’s aesthetic generated from its performers and stage hands.

(I should probably say that the theatre’s other public spaces also have something of this feeling, for now: there’s a general sense of everyone being in everyone else’s way when the theatre is busy, of crowd blockage instead of crowd flow. Box Office and toilets have been especially well hidden, which is a shame, because I suspect this show is going to make a lot of people need the toilet.)

Another irony to all this is that Julius Caesar is an exploration of agency, will power and causation, and this production could not have been more allergic to these things on the part of its audience. Brutus talks endlessly about causes, whilst Caesar’s second of three scenes turns on whether he will or will not go to the senate. The first half of the scene turns on the word ‘forth’, which gets mentioned so often it becomes its own magic verb: ‘Caesar shall forth’. Once Caesar decides that he won’t go forth after all, however, the focus of the language switches to the word ‘will’ (and, to a lesser extent, ’cause’):

CAESAR. And tell them that I will not come today.

‘Cannot’ is false, and that I ‘dare’ not, falser:

will not come today. Tell them so, Decius. […]

DECIUS. Most mighty Caesar, let me know some cause,

Lest I be laughed at when I tell them so.

CAESAR. The cause is in my will; I will not come.

Compare this to the entrance of Cinna the Poet (who we meet only in this scene):

I have no will to wander forth of doors,

Yet something leads me forth.

This play is fascinated, on the fictional level, by what makes humans choose to go ‘forth’, the ‘something’ that gives them ‘will’ to take action. But it’s fascinated, on the theatrical level, in what makes actors go on and offstage too (as above, where Caesar spends a whole scene asking this question, and Cinna the poet enters by asking why he enters). But this production, instead, welcomes people into its fictional spaces only to control their will, agency and ability to go forth, barking incessantly at its audience to say where it can and cannot go.

Late in the play Varro says to Brutus that ‘we will stand and watch your pleasure’, but Brutus says, ‘I will not have it so: lie down, good sirs’. The production’s attitude to the audience mirrors Brutus’ to Varro, minus the polite bit at the end. Lie down, stand there, behave. Is it worth asking after the ethical and political implications of this production’s desire for an audience it can shove around, shout at, control and tell to get down?


Since writing this piece, I’ve been contacted by other audience members, including my own students, who also found the show traumatic, some of whom found themselves forced to leave it. I’m told that staff members are sitting with and looking after people who leave the show, which is a good thing, but also that members of staff have boasted about how difficult the show is for some people, saying that the fact that people are unable to remain in the space and even become unwell is a sign of how great the production is. Let’s be clear: that’s a very bad thing, and sounds like mansplaining audience trauma back to them. It’s wonderful to actively engage your audience, but measuring the success of that engagement by how unsafe you make them feel is simply abusive. Audience participation is a gift that should benefit the individual as well as the show; at the Bridge Theatre Julius Caesar, the audience are just pieces of meat in the weird and rigged game the production wants to play. Let’s get rid of the boreishly macho part of London theatre culture which thinks ‘promenade’ means ‘abusive, aggressive, unkind, exploitative one-sided interaction’. That’s a very strange place to take a word which originally referred to a delightful, pleasant walk.

Andy Kesson






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