Review: Julius Caesar teaches us terrifying truths about today with impressive clarity

The RSC's Julius Caesar. Picture: Helen Maybanks
The RSC's Julius Caesar. Picture: Helen Maybanks

Peter Ormerod reviews Julius Caesar, presented by the RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

It is always tempting to consider politicians of the current generation to be the most cynical, scheming and manipulative ever to hold office.

Yet here we have a play written 400 years ago about events that happened 2,000 years ago. And its enduring appeal is surely testament to the eternally relevant nature of its insights into political plotting, the corruption of idealism and the terrifying power of rhetoric.

This is a crisp, brisk and compelling production. Julius Caesar is among Shakespeare’s most quotable plays, and yet Angus Jackson’s direction never feels encumbered by the weight of its words. There is a nimbleness and lightness or touch throughout, but it is ultimately as sharp and crushing as the tale demands.

The story tells of a triumphant Julius Caesar returning in triumph from war. He is so acclaimed and esteemed that there is talk of him being made king. But this is at odds with the republican ideals of Rome, to the disgust of senator Cassius, who leads a conspiracy to assassinate Caesar in an attempt restore Rome’s noble values.

The story plays out in impressive fashion. The hallmark of this production is its clarity, of speech, of staging, of storytelling. It is hard not to feel caught up with the emotion of the crowds, who first hail Caesar, before being persuaded one way by Brutus’s sympathetic high-mindedness and then another by Mark Antony’s suave deceptions. When Cinna the Poet is set upon by assorted citizens purely for sharing his name with a conspirator, it feels appallingly believable.

Everything here is human and relatable. Audience laughter at moments of drama often suggests something is amiss, but here it seems fitting: there is indeed an absurdity to the enactment of violence in the pursuit of peace.

Performances are strong throughout, but particular plaudits are due to Alex Waldmann as an endearing Brutus and to Martin Hutson as an upstanding yet deeply flawed Cassius.

This is required viewing for anyone who laments the foibles of our current leaders – or who desires a greater understanding of the forces at play today.

* Julius Caesar runs until September 9. Call 01789 403493 to book.