Julius Caesar/The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Ebbw Vale Leisure Centre, Gwent, Wales

A gutsy attack on tyranny
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The Independent Culture

David Farr rightly won awards for his recent, remarkably persuasive, samurai version of Coriolanus. He returns to Shakespeare's Roman plays with this gutsy, toga-trashingly immediate modern-dress account of Julius Caesar, which is one of the two mobile productions on the 2004-5 RSC tour. It's not the most finished or sophisticated staging of the piece, but - particularly given the wide range of audiences it is intent on reaching - it has the great virtue of presenting the play not as some venerable set text but as a drama sizzling with uncomfortably live issues.

David Farr rightly won awards for his recent, remarkably persuasive, samurai version of Coriolanus. He returns to Shakespeare's Roman plays with this gutsy, toga-trashingly immediate modern-dress account of Julius Caesar, which is one of the two mobile productions on the 2004-5 RSC tour. It's not the most finished or sophisticated staging of the piece, but - particularly given the wide range of audiences it is intent on reaching - it has the great virtue of presenting the play not as some venerable set text but as a drama sizzling with uncomfortably live issues.

The overhead strip-lighting rasps and frazzles to signal the unnaturally disturbed weather in Rome. The production, too, crackles with static as it intimates glancing parallels between the incipient tyranny of Julius Caesar and the anti-democratic instincts and personality cult of contemporary leaders such as Vladimir Putin. But Farr responsibly refuses to push such parallels too far. His interpretation is alert to all the contradictions in the characters that prevent one from ever taking a single or settled point of view on the proceedings.

Seemingly entranced by the humane reasonableness of his own utterances, Zubin Varla's striking Brutus vividly illustrates a deluded disregard for the difference between high-flown principle and abattoir-like practice. Gary Oliver's excellent, beefily charismatic Antony throws up in bereaved horror after his edgy discussion with the assassins. Yet his fidelity to Caesar's legacy is soon in question. Witness the casually cynical way this Antony tears up his friend's will once it has served its turn in his wonderfully manipulative delivery of the funeral oration.

Though there are occasional excesses, the staging offers an adroitly suggestive mix of the modern (the pornographic poring over Caesar's wounds by a hand-held camera for the eager consumption of the crowd) and the timelessly ritualistic (the expressive use of a bucket of water, into which each of the conspirators dips his brow to indicate both the storm they've come through and a kind of masonic initiation).

The subsequent war puts heavy pressure on the amity between Brutus and Adrian Schiller's wirily intense Cassius (the scene of their bust-up and reconciliation is rather too high-pitched here). But friendship takes a more severe knock through one chap treacherously falling for the other's girl in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, directed with the same cast and given a 1930s setting by Fiona Buffini.

In her version, there's lots of vivacious, wittily competitive white-tie-and-tails dancing at the ritzy Milanese court, and Rachel Pickup's Sylvia has glamour to burn. But there's not enough of the right kind of life in other areas. Laurence Mitchell is too foursquare as the shifty Proteus and Vanessa Ackerman is stolidly unaffecting as Julia, the pained heroine-in-disguise who is the prototype of Viola. The notorious ending - Valentine not only forgives his buddy, who has tried to force himself on Sylvia, but offers her to him as a mark of renewed friendship - largely defeats efforts to darken it with realistic shock and hesitation.

Even the dog, Crab, who usually brings the house down, is a disappointment. Their Irish wolfhound can't do deadpan stillness and yawns repeatedly. Not the attitude you look for in a canine comedian.

Dumfries Ice Bowl (01387 251300) tomorrow to 30 October, then touring ( www.rsc.org.uk)

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