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Review: Julius Caesar (Crucible Theatre)

Samuel West stars with Jonathan Hyde in this modern-dress production of Julius Caesar

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Sheffield Crucible's advanced publicity describes Julius Caesar as a "fast-paced gripping tale of intrigue and betrayal." Such is not always the case – it can emerge as a slow-moving political and moral debate full of set speeches – but Robert Hastie's production merits the description. Aside from its pace and the arresting and almost cinematic use of sound and lighting (Emma Laxton and Johanna Town), it's the use of space that impresses most.

The huge open Crucible stage can inspire or intimidate and Sheffield Theatres' new artistic director is undoubtedly inspired by it. Ben Stones' basic set is empty, but with canny use of levels: a balcony above (useful for speech-makers and snipers), sunken desks at the sides and front, contributing to a chillingly effective Senate scene. But Hastie doesn't stop there: with a large ensemble from the Sheffield People's Theatre to go with a sizeable professional cast, he uses the whole theatre to create impressive crowd and battle scenes. There's a certain amount of clichéd football chanting and predictable posing with guns, but these scenes immerse the audience in the action.

Hastie and Stones are also not afraid to use space as space. Much of the first act is staged in a tidy setting, with a long committee table or a few crash barriers. Even when two or three characters are conversing on a bare or nearly bare stage, Hastie uses the space dramatically. For the short second half chaos reigns. The triumvirs meet in a wrecked Senate chamber, piles of rubbish – especially political documents – litter the stage and, to begin with, the bodies of three conspirators hang above the action.

This is a production where modern dress is dramatically essential. A programme essay relates the play to contemporary charismatic leaders/tyrants (references to President Trump, photographs of Kim Jong-il and fights in the Turkish Parliament) and this connection drives the production from the moment that Jonathan Hyde's Julius Caesar bestrides the stage like a benign mafioso and Brutus' agonised liberal intellectual makes you feel that more than a letter to the Guardian is required.

Casting is strong, but sometimes eccentric. Outstanding is Samuel West as Brutus, reasoning, decent, incapable of striking an attitude or of seeing the innate sense of superiority in his views, very definitely a Brutus for the 21st century. Zoe Waites' Cassius also makes us re-think the character, full of passion, on the edge emotionally, less the cool schemer. However, the gender-blind casting also causes problems. Cassius and various other characters are presented as women, not male characters played by female actors, which leads to oddities in the text, not least when Portia (the fiery Chipo Chung, even more fiery when doubling as Octavius) suggests that Brutus is hiding the truth from her because she is a woman – most of the conspirators who have just left are also women!

Hyde's Caesar is more of a traditional interpretation, but perfectly judged: we are left unsure, as we should be, how much of a danger to the state he is. Elliot Cowan's athletic Mark Antony is nearer to the bluff tell-it-how-is persona that he claims than many actors in the part: the verse speaking can be choppy, but, given two great speeches for the dead, he manages to make them sound fresh-minted in their context.

Julius Caesar runs at Sheffield Crucible from 23 May to 10 June.