Theatre: JULIUS CAESAR RSC Stratford upon Avon

Click to follow
The temptation to ditch the scarlet togas and buy in a job lot of grey suits must have been fairly formidable when John Major let loose the dogs of the leadership war. Bar the installation of phone lines in case of a second ballot, much of what we've had to endure these last weeks is there, brilliantly, in Julius Caesar, albeit in a society where they knifed you in the back with a knife: resentful envy and stark ambition out to dress up political assassination as high-minded concern for the health of the state; the strategic posing as the natural air of former, tragically discarded greatness...

Peter Hall, though, is not the kind of director who goes in for glib topicality. Indeed, his new main-stage production of the play at Stratford is sometimes almost comically at pains to stress that these intensely recognisable politicians with their very modern-seeming calculations and thought processes lived in a world that is also extremely alien to ours, with its primitive belief in signs and portents and soothsayers (less alien if you recall Nancy Reagan's astrologer). Hence, the introduction here of symbols, or rather Symbols.

Some of these work reasonably well, such as the premonitory blood-red crack slashed through the marble medallion of Caesar in the first-act storm. Others are hard to view with a straight face. The gigantic eagle talons that are pushed out from the wings when the military battles start ,hang there looking more like some badly misconceived shop sign for a Roman pedicurist than an emblem of preying revenge. The huge graven head of Caesar that rises and debouches rivulets of blood from under its hairline would command greater awe, you feel, if its features were less like those of actor Bill Paterson, who is not in this staging, and more like Christopher Benjamin, who is.

With its balance of admirable strengths and embarrassing errors of judgement, the production doesn't just invite you to sit on the fence critically, it plumps up a cushion for you there.

High on the list of virtues come the exciting speed and clarity of the verse speaking (the playing time is a taut two and a quarter hours sans interval). With an expression that could curdle milk at 100 paces, Julian Glover's Cassius is a transfixing foil to John Nettles's softer, sympathetically self-deceived Brutus whose face as he looks down over the hacked Caesar is suffused with a wonderfully revealing fake satisfaction and resolve. The violence of this assassination is splendidly projected, with Benjamin's blubbery tyrant desperately fighting back as though reluctant to disbelieve his myth even as the knives plunge in.

The vital scene where Hugh Quarshie's Antony sways the crowd is a near disaster, however. Though he still has to use recorded mob noise, Hall has roped in a lot of uncomfortable-looking extras who appear brainless above and beyond the call of duty and about as worryingly combustible as a plate of rice pudding. They'd need to be above-averagely dense not to see through this Antony who transparently assumes Caesar's bloody mantle as if of right. Here, it's a case of weakness in numbers. Maybe even on a main stage, six is a crowd and double-figure amateurs barely a company.

n In repertory at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Waterside, Stratford upon Avon (booking: 01789 295623)