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Julius Caesar

William Shakespeare
BITE:05
Barbican Theatre
(2005)

Julius Caesar publicity graphic

Deborah Warner's Julius Caesar is a heady concoction of production values from the past that are no longer seen today as accountants take over Theatre, and some glimpses of the way that Shakespeare might be portrayed in the future.

The Barbican's BITE 05 team has got together to co-produce this big-name extravaganza with some of Europe's finest theatres. This means that it will be seen in Paris, Madrid and Luxembourg as well as London. For those who have doubts about the quality of their understanding of English, it is a very visual production that despite its three-and-a-half-hour length will offer many attractions.

The cast-list is one to drool over. It contains the man and woman who may well be regarded as the finest exemplars of their profession still to be seen on stage, Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw, together with a younger heartthrob, Ralph Fiennes and an actor a long way from his performance in Private Lives, Anton Lesser.

John Shrapnel's Caesar is a proud man who has made too many enemies. His death is inevitable after he ignores the advice of a drunken soothsayer and his beautiful wife Calphurnia, who has read the message offered by stormy pathetic fallacy.

Led by Simon Russell Beale as a Cassius, somewhat reminiscent of his Iago but surely not a "lean and hungry" man, a group of conspirators build up their courage to challenge the ruler.

There is little doubt that with an election in the offing, comparisons will be drawn with the current Prime Minister and who knows which of his cabinet members? Indeed, having seen a conservative new Pope elected this week who is less than popular in some circles, the timeliness of this opening cannot be exaggerated.

However, without the intelligence and leadership of Brutus (Anton Lesser), a man who feels real guilt at his betrayal, this may all have come to nothing.

Where the new regime goes wrong is in inviting the less than humble Mark Antony to preach a eulogy over his much-loved leader. While Brutus had rallied the mob to reach a fever pitch where they would happily have torn Caesar's body apart, the until then unimposing, Ralph Fiennes wins them back. He does so delivering the "friends Romans and countrymen" speech at breakneck speed and succeeds in persuading them that Caesar was a great man whose slaughter must be avenged.

We are then led into a bloody civil war that, after some rather ponderous debate, has the volume and visual display of a sci-fi movie.

In the central roles, Simon Russell Beale is an entirely convincing Cassius and Anton Lesser, who only stepped into the part relatively late, is almost equally good as his brother. Ralph Fiennes saves his best work for the set-piece speeches while Miss Shaw has a mere delightful cameo as Brutus' crippled wife Portia.

100 years ago, it would have been a relatively common to see a theatrical performance with a cast of 130. The impact on a modern audience is surprising. With mobs that are realistic, the terror that is felt when the wrong man , a poet to boot, gets killed as tempers fray, seems far too close to home, especially since the costumes (designed by Chloe Obolensky) are very much those of the third millennium.

The production, designed by Tom Pye, takes place in the barest of black boxes after the interval, as the whole of the Barbican stage space becomes one vast warehouse with the actors looking remarkably small. Even in the earlier scenes, Miss Warner's love of empty space is paramount as the action takes place on a set of wide marble steps with crush barriers providing scenery. There are, though, backlit video projections which can be spectacular but on occasion are rather off putting, taking one's eyes from the actors.

While this is an expensive production, it has sold out the Barbican run prior to opening and with its many big names, several of whom have been seen on both sides of the Atlantic, must be a good bet for a transfer to either the West End or Broadway after it finishes its European jaunt.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher