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Set play

Julius Caesar, Royal Shakespeare Company, The Barbican

Edward Hall's production begins not amid the populace on the streets as Shakespeare intended, but with the pomp and circumstance of Caesar and his entourage. As Ian Hogg's corpulent Caesar revels in the glory of his status, ticker-tape showers down on to the audience and a blonde woman in black uniform and Thirties Marcel wave sings the equivalent of "Tomorrow Belongs to Me". The parallels between ancient Rome and 20th-century Europe are immediately made and the repellent excitement of a Nazi rally is instantly captured.

This makes for some arresting theatrical moments, but it is difficult to see the idea as much more than a means of providing chilling set-pieces. The loss of the artisans is especially regretted if we are to see saving the Republic as equivalent to being on the side of democracy. When Cinna the poet is lynched, his attackers look like the SS or some later secret police force. The manipulation of a wayward mob by fluent rhetoricians when they are addressed by Brutus and Antony is lost, despite the deployment of the Blackshirts around the auditorium.

The costume design, which requires actors to wear togas and Roman helmets with 20th-century uniforms, looks odd, but it is probable that Shakespeare's actors did the same, slinging togas over their doublets and hose.

Throughout, an electric sign reading "Peace, Freedom, Liberty" dominates the stage, recalling the modern-sounding line spoken by Cassius immediately after the murder of Caesar: "Liberty, freedom, and enfranchisement!"

Hall does not milk the horrors of war. After the Battle of Philippi, blood is smeared on the walls, but the action is assumed to have taken place off-stage and we see the remnants of armies lying down to die. Neither Brutus (Greg Hicks) nor Antony (Tom Mannion) has enough passion or charisma to rally and manipulate followers. As Cassius, Tim Pigott-Smith is angry, jealous and intelligent, presenting a rounded, complex character in whom nobility struggles with pragmatism and pettiness. The scene between him and Brutus before the battle suggests a true friendship; there is more intensity here than at any other moment in the production.

Heather Neill The text used in this production is a version of the Folio. The RSC programme provides thought-provoking background. RSC Education: 01789 296655. Steve Sohmer's book, Shakespeare's Mystery Play (Manchester University Press), provides fascinating insights into the political parallels between Caesar and Elizabeth I. Tickets: 020 7638 8891.

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