Julius Caesar, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

The fall of Rome
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The Independent Culture

The men in Edward Hall's production of Julius Caesar are in a fetching army, but whose? Some are in uniforms of charcoal, mulberry, and midnight blue, draped in grey blankets with borders in matching colours. Others have commandeered the outfits left over from a biopic of Oswald Mosley. In black shirts and carrying truncheons, they storm the auditorium, much as the soldiers of Henry V lamely did for Hall last year.

But this time, these shock troops are not only ineffectual – they club all sense out of the meaning of the play. They are supposed to be the plebeians, those straws in the wind of first Brutus's and then Mark Antony's rhetoric. So how did they organise themselves into a well-dressed fighting force? And where is the chill breeze of terror that should whistle round us as the cries of the rabble shift from "Live, Brutus! Live!'' to "Seek! Burn! Kill!''?

Hall uses another device from an RSC play of last year. When the mob run wild and murder the poet Cinna, stringing him up and ripping out his gory heart, we are struck by how much better this effect was managed by Michael Boyd in Henry VI, where it was not buried in the distant upstage reaches of the main house. Earlier, the Soothsayer hangs about in those empty depths, or props up a side wall, reminding us (if we notice him), with his denim jacket, that the play is more relevant than we might think from the mainly Thirties dress.

The title character, though, often wears next to nothing. Buttoned into a nappy, and in a wig that has seen better centuries, Ian Hogg's Caesar booms and frets like the head of a seedy public school who is dreading an Ofsted inspection. Collapsing into Mark Antony's arms, he bawls, "Let me have men about me that are fat!'' like a starving cannibal. One can't blame Tom Mannion's Antony for looking dismayed, then or at any time in this production, in which this normally robust actor gives a colourless performance. Greg Hicks's noble, grieving warrior in Tantalus must have made him seen ideal for Brutus, but here he just looks pained, like a Roman who has eaten too many dormice. Tim Pigott-Smith's crisp, cold Cassius, though, baring his teeth like a feral rabbit as he hears of Caesar's weakness, is a conspirator who really does seem a threat.

This production seems rather hard on latecomers, who may think, when the black-clad troops are spaced out on stage singing, "We bring forth the new world from the ashes of the old'' and "The republic makes us strong,'' that they have wandered into an unholy combination of a TUC rally and Cabaret. If they arrive later, though, to see the enormous words "PEACE, FREEDOM, LIBERTY'' on the rear wall become, as these concepts are threatened, "PE, CE, FREED M, LIB,'' they may feel they're at Wheel of Fortune in reverse. Certainly actors and audience at this mess are both out of luck.

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