Never let it be said that Robert Hastie doesn’t know how to make an introduction. His inaugural season as artistic director of Sheffield Theatres begins with Julius Caesar, one of those Shakespeare plays that seems to be everywhere right now. Yet it’s unlikely a rival production will be fizzing with as much energy as this one.
There’s also a bit of a sense of ‘clearing the decks’ after Daniel Evans’ successful seven years in charge. The main theatre feels different somehow, with an entire row of seats removed and Ben Stones’ stage design making the audience feel as if they’re sitting on the floor of the United Nations rather than in a theatre.
The advance marketing for Hastie’s Caesar has made much of the fact that Shakespeare’s historical tragedy parallels today’s events, with taglines like “when the majority choose a dangerous leader, what should the honourable citizen do?” Thankfully, the actual production is a bit more subtle, with all references to Donald Trump kept to the programme notes.
It’s undeniable, though, that Julius Caesar is a remarkably prescient play, and Hastie skilfully makes the most of this. We’re introduced to his version of Rome (with some clever parallels to Sheffield – the shiny steel of the knives glitters in the opening scene) by toga-clad, chanting populists celebrating Caesar’s victory, and then we meet the man himself, glad-handing well-wishers with a glamorous younger wife in tow. The fact that the main cast have eschewed traditional get-up in favour of sharp business suits only adds to the uncanny real-life echoes.
Of course, Caesar himself is not the main star. It’s Brutus who dominates, embodied here by Samuel West, returning to the theatre he ran for two eventful years a decade ago. West is as excellent as you’d expect, full of understated grief at the betrayal of his friend, which he tries to counterbalance with the thought that he was doing the right thing for his country, his inner torture embodied in his delivery of the classic funeral speech. As good as West is, though, he never overshadows the rest of the cast. Hastie bravely gender-swaps Cassius and Casca into strong, determined women intent on acting for the good of Rome.
It’s the thrilling, visceral energy that Hastie imbues the play with that really stands out though: Mark Antony’s ‘Friends Romans, Countrymen’ speech is a particularly stirring moment, with Elliot Cowan’s Antony ending up in the stalls among the audience, encouraging his fellow Romans to take revenge on Brutus and the conspirators. When that’s followed by a scene of an innocent poet having his identity mistaken for a conspirator and being torn to bits, it’s impossible not to feel a shiver of disgust, particularly on the day that Katie Hopkins called for a “final solution”, and for “Western men” to “rise up” following the Manchester terror attacks.
The breathless pace of the first half dissipates a bit after the interval, but Hastie’s production still has a cinematic quality to it that becomes quite gripping. Brutus’ quarrel with Cassius is played under low light, with only the glow of several fluorescent strips overhead flickering above the pair, and is a masterclass of a two-handed dialogue between West and Zoe Waites’ Cassius. The climactic Battle of Philippi is a stunning set-piece, with gun-toting soldiers running around the audience and smoke bombs detonating onstage and bullets piercing brains with gruesome clarity.
Hastie’s Julius Caesar is the best sort of Shakesepeare production, the type that’s not afraid to make radical departures from the text but still manages to keep the purists onside. It’s quite the statement of intent, and one that indicates a bright future for Sheffield Theatres under its new artistic director.
Julius Caesar is at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, until June 10th. For more details, click here.