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Julius Caesar

William Shakespeare
RSC at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon
(2004)

Every time I've seen a David Farr production of one of the Bard's plays, I've found it an extraordinary experience.

Almost three years ago I saw his version of The Taming of the Shrew at Nottingham Playhouse. Farr set it in middle America in the early 1950s when American teenagers were pressing for more freedom.

Last year Farr presented Coriolanus at the RSC and switched the action to Japan. There were samurai swords in abundance in a breathtaking production.

Now the highly-regarded director who will shortly take over as artistic director at the Lyric in Hammersmith has brought Julius Caesar into the 21st century. He wanted to find a way in which the play would resonate with today's audiences. It goes deeper than he probably imagined.

The play is set within the emerging democracy in Rome and war is never far away. Farr draws parallels with modern-day dictators such as Putin and Berlusconi. But I couldn't help thinking of Caesar as Saddam Hussein; and the honourable Brutus and Cassius as Blair and Bush, the archetypal spin doctors whose motives don't stand up.

The production starts in an explosive fashion and the pace rarely lets up. Lights flash and insurgents wearing balaclavas race around brandishing guns before Caesar, who has won the war against Pompey, returns to hold a press conference.

Farr has often worked with designer Ti Green and the pair of them have come up with an impressive, imaginative setting. Video cameras play a large part, relaying the action onto makeshift screens fasted onto a scaffolding structure which dominates the back of the stage. Close-up shots of Caesar's wounds after he's been murdered give the feel of surgery programmes that you can see on mainstream as well as satellite television channels.

As for the actors, Farr is able to call on an energetic ensemble which includes no fewer than thirteen who are making their RSC debuts.

Adrian Schiller is excellent as Cassius, cunning, manipulative, persuasive in his arguments and rarely becoming angry. He is a splendid foil for Zubin Varla's Brutus who speaks lucidly even when losing his temper.

Gary Oliver is fiery and passionate as Mark Antony. He excels in the "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech and has the gullible crowd exactly where he wants them. However, his delivery of the "this was the noblest Roman of them all" speech at the end of the play was merely satisfactory and didn't honour Brutus's memory.

Christopher Saul is a commanding Caesar, slightly arrogant, angry when anyone tries to change his mind and eager to have a laugh.

The rest of the ensemble are extremely competent. They have benefited both from the long rehearsal time and almost three months on tour before the play moved into the Swan.

However, there are a few strange, quirky elements of Farr's production which for me prevent it becoming a total success.

The first time we see Caesar after his war exploits, he is dressed in a leather jacket and jeans - hardly the correct attire for a man of his status.

During the death scene, the murderers stop to allow Caesar to dip his hands in a bucket of fake blood which he smears over his head and face. The killers cover their arms in the red stuff to represent Caesar's blood. It's a weird concept.

There seems no justification for Cinna the poet and two women soldiers breaking into a song about war during a scene change. They didn't have The X Factor; it was too silly for words.

On the whole, though, it's an exciting, fizzing production by Farr who demonstrates that Shakespeare is just as relevant in the 21st century as he was 400 years ago.

"Julius Caesar" runs at the Swan until February 26th, then it transfers to Davidson College, North Carolina before touring in this country again until May 14th

Reviewer: Steve Orme