THEATRE / Seer suckers: Julius Caesar; The Royal Exchange

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Shakespeare was not so much a classicist as to take his heroes at their own estimation, and Robert Delamere's compelling new production of Julius Caesar opens a yawning gap between the words 'noble' and 'Roman'.

Cassius couples 'priests and cowards' and he and Brutus imagine themselves to be rationalists, scornful of 'fantasy, dreams and ceremonies'. Their cry is the modern one of 'liberty, freedom and enfranchisement' and they bind themselves not by oaths but in 'honesty to honesty'. But neither Rome, the conspirators, nor perhaps even Brutus himself, is remotely capable of such high-mindedness. Instead all labour in a mystery of violence where the soothsayer calls out invisibly from the smoke of incense and sacrifice. From the text, Delamere and his designer Rob Howell have seized a stew of 'butcher', 'carcasse', 'blood' and 'offal'. As the opening image too obviously announces, we are in an abattoir, not a senate house.

That the play envisages one of the founding centres of the western world as so in thrall to primitive superstition is made balefully clear. The Ides of March and the night of prodigious storms have a force and significance I have seen in no other production, though the leaden prequel featuring Mark Antony at his Dionysian exercise could go. This world finally invades even Brutus's mind, in the shape of Caesar's ghost, wonderfully sought out by David Lawrence's superb lighting.

This emphasis does, however, have some costs. That the characters are driven by obscure forces in keeping with the rough militarism of their demeanour makes ample sense, but they can seem like automatons, allowed less of their interior life than the text reveals. Robert Gwilym's Cassius is the main casualty here, an NCO with a grudge rather than a man complexly tortured by jealousy, ambition and the need for love. More enigmatic is Danny Sapani's Antony, glamorously sweaty, yet more knowing and ruthless than Cassius can hope to be. But he so deliberately shows us the calculations of his rhetoric that we can never sway towards him with the crowd.

Brutus in any account might be seen as an automaton of rectitude, and so Patrick O'Kane plays him, with a stark fixity to his nearly fanatic countenance. This is especially impressive in the scene with Catherine White's marvellously convincing Portia, but in the earlier soliloquy he does not seem a man capable of such doubt. The tent scene between Brutus and Cassius does eventually uncover their fragile humanity, but too reluctantly.

These cavils are all matters of interpretation. Robert Delamere has a strong vision of the play and, in only his second production in this space, manages it excellently, especially in the casting and detailing of the strong supporting cast. I hope that the auguries for his and the designers' return are good.

Until 15 Oct: Mon-Thurs 7.30pm, Fri & Sat 8pm, Mat Sat 4pm. Box office 061-833 9833