Julius Caesar at the The Young Vic

Anyone writing about the psychology of crowds is almost inevitably drawn to Julius Caesar. As recent events on petrol forecourts demonstrated, when it comes to portraying the effects of mob rule and the fickleness of crowds - key themes in the play - Shakespeare was spot on. Unfortunately, present-day theatre budgets are not sufficient to support a cast large enough to give the full flavour of this complex, mob-driven piece.

The Young Vic's new artistic director David Lan's answer to this lack of bodies is to present the play as a chamber piece where rite and ritual hold sway, and where even minor acts have their own symbolism. As befits an anthropologist, Lan's vision of the play drips with elements of folklore - this is Golden Bough territory. The conspirators don't douse themselves in blood to proclaim their deed but in water, and following the murder, they ritually wash themselves. There's already an understanding of how the murder is set to resonate down the ages. As Cassius says, 'How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted o'er?'

The trouble with such a small cast is that some of the political elements of the play are naturally lost. In particular, the battle scenes are hopelessly confusing, with the same actors playing so many different parts, it's hard for the newcomer in the audience to grasp what's going on. And, of course, there's no sense of how mob rule takes hold of Rome following Antony's funeral speech.

To be fair to Lan, a lot of directors face a similar struggle - Shakespeare himself seemed to lose interest in the play about 70% of the way through and the last act is confusing enough as it is. But Lan's other big problem is one of his own making. He opts for a predominantly young cast, who have real difficulty bringing conviction to their roles. John Schlesinger tried - and failed - to produce this play with young actors in the mid-70s, and the players here don't have sufficient gravitas to bring it off either.

Marcus D'Amico's Cassius stomps around like a petulant queen, Lloyd Owen's stiff Brutus (who disconcertingly sounds like Michael Portillo) does not exactly seem like 'the noblest Roman of them all' - his justification of the assassination has all the conviction of a weather forecast. And Dorian Healy's Caesar scarcely hints at someone who bestrode the world like a colossus. On the other hand, Robert Cavanagh' s Mark Antony is a fine performance of a scheming, malevolent politician, certainly a man one could imagine winning a crowd over.

So, an interesting take on Julius Caesar perhaps, but ultimately a flawed one, let down by a young cast, scarcely able to make something of Lan's vision.

Maxwell Cooter