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A CurtainUp London London Review
Julius Caesar

And why should Caesar be a tyrant then? Poor man! I know he would not be a wolf, But he sees the Romans are but sheep.
---- Cassius
Julius Caesar
Christopher Saul as Julius Caesar
(Photo: Manuel Harlan)
David Farr has opened his new artistic directorship of the Lyric Hammersmith with a reprise of his 2004 Royal Shakespeare Company production. His exhilarating, provocative interpretation of Shakespeare, however, is far from unoriginal. Farr emphasizes, although does not enforce, the relevance of the play's major themes of power and politics, ambition and altruism.

The post-industrialist, tarnished metal set, designed by Ti Green, is characterised by stylised ruggedness. Electrics crackle and hiss to great effect and the stage is often immersed in menacingly atmospheric smoke. Reflecting the production's roots in the RSC's mobile theatre tour, this pseudo-unfinished style includes sound technicians onstage and cast members constructing the set or carrying on extra lights. With further metatheatrical flair, the audience are addressed as the Roman mob and upbraided for wearing their "best attire". Video cameras and a projection screen are used with sophisticated visual rhetoric: from propaganda films of Caesar embracing children to graphic close-ups of his wounds.

This anonymously modern version could be, although is not necessarily, set in Putin's Russia. Similar to his recently written play The UN Inspector, David Farr here explores the problem of fallible or self-interested men who also wield immense power over the lives (and deaths) of the masses. However, the ambiguity of Shakespeare's text is fully teased out and no single character emerges as an unconditional villain or hero. The only straightforward indictment is aimed against the senseless carnage of war. After a viciously cruel murder, Cinna the unfortunately named poet (Andrew Melville) is strung up with his torn-out tongue gruesomely displayed. He is left hanging onstage during the triumvirate-to-be's executive, laptop co-ordinated bartering for political deaths. Cinna then leaps down for some morbid cabaret, singing "It's war, it's war, it's gore galore," accompanied by two camouflage-clad babes.

David Farr's direction combines this innovation with excellent acting and sharply individualised characters within an ensemble cast. Adrian Schiller is superb as a sinewy, circumspect and compelling Cassius. His piercing, lingering stares are part of his persuasive machinations while his level tones expertly naturalise the Shakespearean language. Equally outstanding was Gary Oliver as Mark Antony whose Iago-style bluffness masks scheming expertise. After convincing the assassins to spare his life, he coughs as if vomiting up the bile of his deceit and flattery, only to predict in chilling terms the horrific human cost of the civil war he will instigate.

Christopher Saul is a formidable Caesar, with physical bulk and a mercurial temper. Angrily authoritative and susceptible to reminders of his greatness, he downs multiple shots of espresso. His brutal death scene was full of suspense and closely fought, with a Caesar who seems as if he might just escape his fate. Zubin Varla's Brutus is anguished and neurotically twitchy, but also impervious to the death-toll implications of his ideals and actions.

This explosive and violent rendering is provocative and bloody, but also thrilling and inspiring. David Farr has invigorated an Elizabethan account of an ancient Roman scenario with fresh energy, grim violence and contemporary significance. We can only hope that he will continue his tenure of the Lyric with similarly dynamic and exciting projects.

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by David Farr

Starring: Christopher Saul, Zubin Varla, Gary Oliver, Adrian Schiller
With: Phillip Edgerley, Charles Daish, Merryn Owen, Gabriel Bisset-Smith, Richard Copestake, Richard Clews, Clifford Samuel, Patrick Romer, Rachel Pickup, Sharlene Whyte, Rhys Swinburne, Andrew Melville, Simon Scott, Emily Wachter, Endy McKay
Set Designer: Ti Green
Lighting: Neil Austin
Sound: Martin Slavin
Composer: Keith Clouston
Fight Direction: Terry King
Film and Movement Design: Mark Murphy
Musical Direction: Malcolm Newton
Running time: Two hours forty-five minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 050 0511
Booking to 15th October 2005
Reviewed by Charlotte Loveridge based on 7th September performance at the Lyric Hammersmith London W6 (Tube: Hammersmith)
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