Set play

29th June 2001 at 01:00
Julius Caesar. Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Stratford-upon-Avon.

Edward Hall describes his new production of Julius Caesar as a "sharp, two-hour political thriller". Playing without an interval, Hall's 23 actors will create the momentum of Shakespeare's dramatic portrayal of the ordered state of ancient Rome collapsing into the decay and chaotic wasteland of a devastating civil war.

To deliver his two hours' traffic of the stage, Hall has made judicious cuts. He will pitch the audience immediately into the autocracy of Rome. That means opening not with the Tribunes scene, but with Caesar's commanding entry in scene 2.

Elsewhere, Hall has telescoped the action of the Philippi scenes, and eliminated lines "where Shakespeare too slavishly followed Plutarch at the expense of dramatic effect".

Hall identifies the contemporary political relevances of the play. "Today, the backstabbing is more metaphorical than literal, but politicians still say one thing but mean another, and there is always an increasing wish to dominate as a politician gains more power. At a different level, the play constantly poses a crucial question: can it be right to remove a leader by violence?" Hall's modern setting will convey that Rome is a one party state with a single ruler.

"It echoes Mussolini's Italy, Mao's China, or Stalin's Russia, but with ancient Rome stencilled over." So look out, especially for the plebeians. They are not grimy workers; more like Blackshirts or Caesar Youth. These are happy, healthy youngsters who sing an anthem to greet the tyrant.

Hall stresses that, although he will stage a fast-moving thriller, the play is essentially a tragedy. "That's because it fulfils two of Aristotle's principles. First, that an action is played out, but its opposite effect is created. The conspirators set out to preserve the Roman republic, but their actions destroy it. Second, the characters realise, as Brutus does, that the opposite effect has been achieved."

In Hall's view, Brutus is the only character exempt from the corruption of the power politics that pervade the play. "He acts for the right reasons. Shakespeare shows that even his mistakes are based on principles as he allows Antony to speak and overrules Cassius's military advice. But those fatal decisions lead to his downfall. The only honourable course left for him is suicide."

The redesigned Stratford stage gives Hall's production extra appeal. The audience will have its own part to play in the climactic Forum scene.

Rex Gibson Julius Caesar previews from July 13 and ends on October 13. Box office: 01789 403 403 .

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