Arts: Nightmare of delight

THEATRE: GIULIO CESARE QUEEN ELIZABETH HALL SOUTH BANK
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The Independent Culture
THE PUBLICITY surrounding Romeo Castellucci's controversial production of Giulio Cesare does little to prepare you for its earth-tilting impact. There they are as promised: Mark Antony reduced to croaking out his immortal lines because of a laryngotomy; Cicero flaunting his naked, lardish obesity; an assembly with a live horse and a walking chair; Caesar displaying his senile fragility through a haze of white pubic hair; and Brutus and Cassius transformed at the end into two snarling, anorexic women prowling a wasted landscape.

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is a play obsessed by physicality, and Castellucci has delved deep into its metaphors to produce a nightmarish vision of the forces released when political order is threatened. The production ambushes the audience, constantly challenging concepts of the body's boundaries in a two-and-a-half-hour surreal sensory overload that leaves you reeling.

Castellucci has revealed that he wants theatre to break through the constraints of the text, and focus on the more direct medium of the image. Even so, when you return to the text of Julius Caesar you realise how appropriate many of the director's seemingly outlandish innovations are. Julius Caesar's main problem is his physical weakness, and Maurizio Carra's skeletal presence underlines the obsession of Brutus and Cassius with the irony that his pathetic frame does not match up to the grandeur of his title.

Cicero's obesity picks up on Caesar's strangely expressed wish to "have about me men that are fat... young Cassius has a lean and hungry look; he thinks too much: such men are dangerous". Later, as Brutus and Cassius in anorexic form stalk the landscape, this primal image returns with renewed force.

The stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall provides a large canvas for Castellucci's vision - imagine one of Bosch's images of hell filmed by Tarkovsky. The soundtrack adds to this apocalyptic unease: a low rumble punctuated by the whirr and whine of machines indicates a looming storm, or a volcano about to erupt. As if to add to the sense of a world going mad, stuffed animals suddenly jerk into motion at key moments; Brutus and Cassius' tragedy is briefly upstaged by a cat's head whizzing round, while a horse from the assembly in the first half re-emerges as a skeleton.

In a play obsessed by oratory, it make sense that this production confronts notions of the voice so frequently. The play opens with a man projecting his vocal cords on to a screen by inserting a small camera, Brutus veers between Donald Duck and politician in the funeral address by inhaling helium, and Mark Antony's professed lack of oratorship is summed up by his laryngotomy. The human body is never taken for granted, and by challenging this basic physicality Castellucci turns a world upside-down. An attack on the senses that can never be forgotten.

Rachel Halliburton

Last show tonight (0171-638 8891)

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