Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 26 July, 2001

The sun on the meadow is summery warm, the stag in the forest runs free, but tomorrow doesn't belong to him. Edward Hall's production of Julius Caesar roots the Roman vision of the mystical union of people and state in Fascist imagery. Indeed, almost as in the film version of Cabaret, the opening scene is of a Hitlerjugend-dressed young man singing a hymn to the Republic, gradually joined by others in black uniforms and jackboots, with martial drumming, until Caesar himself enters exultant. (It's rather disconcerting that these SS-ish costumes are draped over with togas, though, especially as no two actors can agree on how to wear the latter.)

Michael Pavelka's otherwise featureless grey set, with its walkway enabling numerous entrances from the rear of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre's auditorium, is overhung with a vast quasi-neon sign proclaiming "Peace, Freedom, Liberty" the republican virtues which furnish the rallying cry of the tyrannicides. Naturally, bit by bit the neon letters go dark. This is pedestrian compared to most of the effects in Ben Ormerod's lighting-fest, as storms, battles and celestial portents all fly by in just over two hours without an interval.

Hall takes the tale of civic fragmentation at a remarkable lick, cutting the text as close to the bone as he dares. It is the cumulative sweep of events that is the focus rather than individual personalities, the society that lives and dies by the sword more than the man. Ian Hogg's Caesar has a Mussolinian, swaggering demeanour, a valuable warlord but an unlikely statesman except in such a martial society. Tim Pigott-Smith is unwontedly gung-ho as Cassius, his eyes shining with the maddened certainty of the zealot. Greg Hicks' Brutus, so contemplative and so semi-detached from the militaristic mainstream that his very night-wear is Japanese, is by and large the honourable man as which Mark Antony sarcastically describes him.

The central sequence of Antony's funeral oration is beautifully orchestrated. Tom Mannion's Antony, clearly like a son to Caesar, has at first to pitch each single phrase to the hostile crowd as an appeal to be heard. He does not appear to play the mob deliberately; when he breaks off for a moment, during which the citizens (scattered around stage and auditorium) talk themselves around to his viewpoint, Antony appears to be genuinely emotional rather than executing a stratagem. The crowd may be fickle, but they swing around gradually from one passion to the diametrically opposite one; they do not turn on a sixpence for the sake of dramatic convenience. After this and the truly disconcerting mob slaying of Cinna the poet, the civil war and Battle of Philippi are oddly anti-climactic. By then we have already seen, in Hall's vision, the inevitable tragic downfall of the central character: no single man, but an entire political culture.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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