THE current Bristol Old Vic production is Julius Caesar, with a cast of predominantly young actors from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and a veteran actor, Julian Glover, in the title role. It is updated, energetic, angry and topical.
The same play has also been making headlines in New York, where a modern-dress Caesar has been portrayed as a Trump-lookalike. The hysterical response to this production, which has just ended, has involved trolling and death threats against theatres, directors and actors in Shakespeare plays across the US.
Julius Caesar is one of Shakespeare’s plays that has an almost uncanny topicality – but rarely has there been a time when its warnings of populism have felt more frighteningly prescient.
Listening to the rough Mark Antony of BOVTS student Ross O’Donnellan, you hear the siren voices of demagogues through history using their facile rhetoric to manipulate the emotions of the crowd – look around this fractured, fearful world and you will find them promising the earth with no intention (or ability) to deliver.
But the angry voices of North Kensington will not go away so easily. There is no curtain that will fall on the shattered community of Grenfell tower. It is all too easy to imagine that this will be one of those epoch-making events that will shake and could destroy a whole generation of local and national politicians and that future historians will pinpoint as the moment when everything changed.
It feels more cataclysmic than the Brexit vote, and that may be because that vote was to a great extent about the past – and the (relatively small) majority of people who want to hang on to it. As a fairly pragmatic people, we are probably going to survive Brexit, however much we regret it. I make no apologies for being a Remainer. As Howard Jacobson put it in his Radio 4 talk last Sunday, this is not a case for “It’s happened – get over it.” We are allowed to be angry about it, but we have to get on with it and to use whatever abilities or power we have to keep up the pressure for the best deal for the future, and that means the future of our young people.
But the Grenfell tower block tragedy is about decades of neglect, cost-cutting, blame-shifting, complacency, box-ticking and rule-bending – and ignoring the needs or rights of the poorest in our community, the people who have no voice.
The reaction of some MPs and right wing media commentators to the eruption of angry people into Kensington Town Hall was the typical response of the entitled few, sneering at ordinary people displaying raw emotion. It was shocking but unsurprising to see how unidentified “militants” were blamed. One right wing newspaper columnist called them “socialist twats” – that’s a mature, intelligent response, isn’t it?
These people are angry. They are right to be angry. They have suffered, heard and seen things which nobody should experience in a civilised country in peacetime. The horrors of the Grenfell inferno are the stuff of war, nightmare and apocalyptic prophecy.
Their anger will only grow if the proposed public inquiry does not clearly and quickly spell out who is responsible. But identifying the chain of responsibility may be impossible, according to the broadcaster Robert Peston, a political, business and economics expert. He warns that a system that devolves decisions and implementation from government to local authority to hands-off management company to lowest bidder may make it impossible to identify who is ultimately responsible.
Chillingly, he also refers to the role of the banks before the financial crisis: “When people can take reckless decisions safe in the knowledge they can’t be held to account, reckless decisions get taken.”
The Grenfell tragedy, he says, shames us all, because it represents “a grotesque breach” of the social contract between those who have voices that are heard and those who don’t. That contract, he says, is “that we should not put them in harm’s way.”
We must hope that the inquiry will hear their voices and can answer some of their questions. Otherwise, it may prove that Grenfell is the trigger that, as Mark Antony predicts as he stands with Caesar’s body before his speech to the Roman people, provokes them to “Cry Havoc, and let slip the dogs of war.”