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Julius Caesar
by Lizzie Loveridge

You have done that you should be sorry for.
--- Brutus
Julius Caesar
Ralph Fiennes as Mark Antony and John Shrapnel as Julius Caesar (Photo: Neil Libbert)

Deborah Warner's new production of Julius Caesar for the BITE Season at the Barbican is unashamedly about the war against Iraq. Anyone who doubts this just has to look at the theatre programme where colour photographs of Bush, Blair, American servicemen occupying Baghdad and of an Iraqi, blindfold and kneeling, dominate. There are parallels between the Allies' invasion of Iraq and with the play: Julius Caesar threatens the democracy of Rome with those who offer him the crown and the civil war which follows is thrown up by the power vacuum created when a powerful leader is deposed but they are often tenuous and contrived. The irony of course is the succession of despotic Roman emperors that follow Julius Caesar, the boy Octavius becomes Augustus and his son Tiberius and their descendants Caligula and Nero are not known for their tolerant reigns.

Warner's cast is outstanding: Ralph Fiennes takes on the role of Caesar's favourite Mark Antony, Anton Lesser is the self absorbed Brutus and Simon Russell Beale is cast against type as the man with the lean and hungry look, Cassius (the line gets a cheap laugh). Her mob too is not a few representatives of the Roman Republic but a cast of almost a hundred, such as can fill the cavernous stage at the Barbican with crash barriers to contain them.

Caesar's first appearance sees him in modern dress, surrounded by security agents with their headset microphones, facing the crowd looking for the glint of a gun barrell. I wonder what would have been the outcome if they had been there on the Capitol steps a day later? The Feast of Lupercal sees an athletic Mark Antony (Ralph Fiennes) flying around in white vest and gymnast trousers receiving the adulation of the crowd and sprayed with champagne like David Beckham when he has scored England's winning soccer goal.

A most interesting aspect of Warner's production are the characterisations of Brutus and Cassius. Simon Russell Beale's Cassius pleads convincingly that "Honour is the subject of my story" and only when he has persuaded Brutus does he show the hatred he has for Caesar, but we are persuaded that he is mostly motivated by decency. Before the murder he is scruffy but afterwards, he is sharp suited and dressed for power. Anton Lesser's Brutus, thinly based on Tony Blair, is introspective, overburdened by the weight of the decisions he must make. His wife Portia played here, not by Fiona Shaw who covered the first performances, but by Rebecca Charles is very moving as the woman whose life is wrecked by her husband's propulsion into front line politics. Her deliberate wounding of her thigh strikes a modern behavioural resonance with the incidence of self injurious "cutting".

It is in the second half of the play that I felt the impact of this version of Julius Caesar as an anti-war polemic. To recap, at this point Brutus and Cassius are preparing for battle at Philippi against the forces led by Mark Antony and Octavius (Oliver Kieran-Jones). There is a scene of brutal horse trading of the lives of relatives when a grimly casual Mark Antony sentences senators to death by pushing a key on his laptop. This leaves us in no doubt as to Antony's cruelty. No one is allowed to remain noble in this production, all are flawed by greed or self aggrandisement.

Warner uses a spaced out stage for Brutus' camp before Philippi, emphasising Brutus' increasing sense of isolation. The backdrop flickers like a television set left on after the end of programme transmission. Brutus and Cassius argue powerfully, snarling at each other, Caesar's murder having removed the bond between them and leaving only division. At the start of the battle, the table is raised high up to the stage flies and the detritus and debris of a house, smashed furniture and belongings crashes down on to the stage. The back screens change like a computer game and people run in from the terrible noise and smoke of battle. The lighting has diagonal ribbons of light criss-crossing the stage so that when a player stands momentarily at the intersection, he is brightly illuminated.

This production makes little of the supernatural, the portents and omens that predicted the murder and the ghost that follows it. In fact the soothsayer who warns Caesar of the Ides of March is a (usually) incomprehensible drunk in the crowd. It also plays down the fickleness and stupidity of the political audience when Fiennes' finest hour as Mark Antony is deliberately muted instead of the usual fine flowing oratory. Caesar (John Shrapnel) seems more corporate success story than dangerous tyrant but as ever Deborah Warner stimulates and makes us think beyond the text.

Julius Caesar
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Deborah Warner

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Simon Russell Beale, Anton Lesser
With: David Collings, Anthony Mark Barrow, Daniel Weyman, Jim Hooper, John Shrapnel, Struan Rodger, Tim Potter, Clifford Rose, Paul Shearer, James Anthony Pearson, John Kane, Michael Gardiner, Rebecca Charles, Chris Jarman, Sean Baker, Robert Demeger, Ginny Holder, Jimmy Gardner, John Rogan, David Glover, Alex McIntoh, Rohan Siva, Joseph Kennedy, Celia Miras, Leo Wringer, Oliver Kieran-Jones
Set and Video Design: Tom Pye
Costume Design: Chloe Obolensky
Lighting: Jean Kalman
Sound: Christopher Shutt
Music: Mel Mercier
Movement: Joyce Henderson
Running time: Three hours 20 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0845 120 7554
Booking to 14th May 2005 and then to Paris, Madrid and Luxembourg to 7th July. Sold out at the Barbican but the night I was there, there were plenty of returns.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 4th May performance at the Barbican Theatre, London EC2 (Tube: Barbican)
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