THEATRE / The lore of the crowd: Paul Taylor reviews Julius Caesar at the Other Place, Stratford

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The Independent Culture
In David Thacker's new promenade production of Julius Caesar, it's not just in the Senate or at the battle of Philippi that there are casualties and close shaves. In Act 2, scene 1, on the opening night, for example, the distinguished critic of the Independent on Sunday would have come to a very sticky end under Caius Ligarius's oncoming wheelchair, had he not flung himself aside in the nick of time.

It's that sort of show. Those who don't opt for the lofty safety of the gallery have to stand and sit and move about in the dark, red-carpeted, stripped-down body of the theatre, forming a crowd that both merges with and is distinct from the Roman people whose feelings are so crucially manipulated and whipped up in the play. The actors push through the throng, or are seen above on any of the four podium- cum-portals that stand at the corners of the stage.

To get a clear view of the proceedings you would have to be on rollerskates and about 6ft 8in, but what you lose through intermittent reception is offset by the genuinely increased excitement of being in the thick of something so literally involving. This is not a toga-party, though. The programme prints a calender of political events from 1985 to now and the action is accordingly transplanted to a vaguely Eastern European dictatorship. The banners whose crests are slashed out when Caesar is assassinated recall the similarly gaping flags during the revolution in Romania.

About these implied parallels I have some reservations. First, it's hardly respectful to the crowds that outfaced Ceausescu or were mown down in Tiananmen Square to compare them to the throng in Julius Caesar which has no firm principles and simply responds to skilful demagoguery. Then again, the updating is (has to be) irritatingly piecemeal. At the start, to a loud fanfare and surrounded by suited heavies, Caesar (David Sumner) makes a grand entrance, his procession filmed by a man with a shoulderheld camera. But not a single camera is trained on Brutus's speech to the crowd or on Antony's brilliant overturning of it directly afterwards. You're forced to assume that either, a) these politicos need remedial lessons in rudimentary propaganda or, b) that the television stations round these parts must have adopted the Martyn Lewis approach to news-values and are otherwise engaged getting cheerful footage of plucky pets who saved their masters from drowning.

Thacker's staging of the piece often has an arresting power. As Caesar is on his way to the Senate on the fateful day, the conspirators suddenly materialise from the midst of the crowd, one by one, with a creepy, dream-like rhythm as though taking part in some deathly equivalent of This Is Your Life. A play that can, in performance, be 'somewhat cold and unaffecting' (Dr Johnson) here burns with a raw immediacy thanks to the promenade concept, though the battle is a bit embarrassing, like being in a disco catering for some recherche macho kink.

Perhaps because he is black and has, in the past, been a fine Othello, Jeffrey Kissoon as Brutus alerts you to the one similarity between the characters, that each needs to convince himself that an act of murder is not butchery but an elevated sacrifice. Of Brutus the intellectual, there's not enough trace here. Rob Edwards contributes a fine, edgy, workaholic Cassius, but leanness and hungriness is more evident in Barry Lynch's excellent Antony. Finally, it's only fair in this case to review the audience: we were absolutely marvellous.