Julius Caesar review – a powerful examination of rhetoric

Crucible, Sheffield
Shakespeare is rooted in our era of fake news in artistic director Robert Hastie’s outstanding first production for the Crucible

If Robert Hastie’s first production as artistic director at Sheffield is a statement of his intentions, I hope to be at every show. His modern-dress Julius Caesar places theatre firmly at the centre of civic life. Yet nothing about it is forced or concept-wilful. Every decision works with and for Shakespeare’s text, while gently incorporating the audience into the action as spectators, witnesses and analysts. The question dissected here, whose answer we must each decide for ourselves, is : what is true rhetoric and what is false? In our era of fake news, this is not an academic issue.

The arts of persuasion are deployed by almost all of the main characters. Two touchstones appear to guide us: does the persuader play on their subject’s weaknesses (as conspiracy-leading Cassius does on Brutus; as the divided Brutus on himself; as Mark Antony on the populace, which is also us, the audience)? Are the consequences of the persuasion good or bad? Here is the core of the problem, for Brutus and for us. Would it have been better if he had not joined the conspiracy and Caesar had not been killed? Would it have been better if Mark Antony had not incited the population to avenge Caesar’s death? At the play’s close, Mark Antony eulogises the defeated and self-slain Brutus, just as, earlier, he had eulogised the murdered Caesar. The fatal consequences of the path taken are clear, but would the path not taken have been better? Was Brutus right or wrong?

Samuel West delivers a Chekhovian Brutus, soul-searching but sometimes overly finicky. As his wife, Portia, Chipo Chung is emotionally powerful and dramatically skilful, giving a role of few lines its necessary weight to counterbalance all false persuasions with the true pleadings of love(she also invests the sketchy Octavius with instant depth, giving him a sulky juvenile warlord slouchy, tetchy demeanour). Jonathan Hyde makes Caesar simultaneously imperial and corporate. Zoë Waites as Cassius grows in stature from typically televisual “suit” to affecting individual. But in a strong cast (including the increasingly impressive community players), Elliot Cowan’s Mark Antony is outstanding: he exposes the character’s multilayers, little by little, yet suggests his true nature and motives remain hidden behind a mask. I’d give a lot to see what Hastie and his production team might make, with Cowan and others here, of Antony and Cleopatra.

• At the Crucible, Sheffield, until 10 June

Contributor

Clare Brennan

The GuardianTramp

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