There’s a moment in Robert Hastie’s taut production of Julius Caesar when the crowd turns. The gathered masses hush and pause. Cries of “Brutus” dissolve on their lips, replaced moments later with vengeful chants of “Caesar”. Watched now, as the tide of rightwing populism continues to lap at western democracies, it feels like an uneasy warning.
The manipulative power of rhetoric and its ability to incite anger and chaos is at the heart of both Shakespeare’s play and Hastie’s production. This version of the Roman general’s fall is firmly contemporary but deliberately non-specific. Caesar, Brutus, Mark Antony and co are all slick-suited politicians, striding across the United Nations-style Senate of Ben Stones’ design. They could be anywhere in the world, steering any precarious democracy.
The eponymous leader is a crowd-pleaser, played with more than a bit of slime by a grandstanding Jonathan Hyde. When he brushes off those who bring omens of his downfall, it’s with the arrogance of an egotist who can do no wrong. Brutus, on the other hand, is depicted by Samuel West as a reluctant rhetorician, a decent but conflicted man suddenly thrust into the limelight. His face speaks constantly of inner turmoil, even as he steps up to the microphone to reassure and rouse the citizens of Rome.
Elliot Cowan’s Mark Antony also takes a while to warm to the lectern, vomiting out the famous “friends, Romans, countrymen” in one nervous breath. But as he twists his tongue around the syllables of “honourable” for the second, third, fourth time, he eases into the role, showing just how easily words can change their meaning. The similarities with post-truth political speechifying don’t need pressing.
True to the promises he made when taking over as artistic director of Sheffield Theatres, Hastie gives us a production that is a lesson in diverse casting. There’s an even gender split and a company of actors who actually look representative of the city outside the theatre. While the gender-swapping adds some interesting new shades to certain characters and relationships, particularly so in the case of a female Cassius (Zoë Waites), it’s all done smoothly and unshowily. It goes to show that gender parity requires commitment, not comment.
Hastie’s direction also exploits the arena-like atmosphere of the Crucible’s thrust stage, casting the audience as both witnesses and citizens in this public forum. Members of the Sheffield People’s Theatre bulk out the ensemble and weave through the auditorium, heightening the sense of an agitated, restless crowd, while Johanna Town’s pulsing lights ratchet up the tension. But the dynamic use of the space is occasionally at the expense of audibility, with several lines directed towards the back of the stage. In a play about rhetoric, this loss of words is unfortunate.
On the whole, though, this is a thrilling take on an increasingly resonant play. Without underlining the contemporary parallels too vigorously, Hastie makes clear the dangers of both powerful oratory and the void that is opened up when a charismatic leader is toppled.
• At the Crucible, Sheffield, until 10 June. Box office: 0114-249 6000.