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Julius Caesar review at Crucible Theatre, Sheffield – ‘pertinent and thrilling’

Samuel West and Chipo Chung in Julius Caesar at Sheffield Theatres. Photo: Johan Persson
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The first and most important thing to say about Robert Hastie’s inaugural production as artistic director at Sheffield Theatres is that the venue is once again in safe yet supremely exciting hands. As with his three predecessors here, he is an actor-turned-director, and having already established his directorial credentials at the Donmar Warehouse and Regent’s Park, and in Manchester and Clwyd, he immediately makes his mark with his thrilling command of the Crucible’s thrust stage.

With designer Ben Stones, he has boldly intervened to transform it into a public space that turns the entire theatre into a giant senate room, with a new ledge replacing the full length of row E that also provides a walkway in front of it for the action to spill into.

At stage level, there’s also a lower trough for the senators to sit in, while the stage floor is a nod to the Crucible’s other purpose, resembling a huge snooker table. A more subtle intervention is the colour-, gender- and disability-blind casting, which is another powerful statement of artistic intent for Hastie (whose previous credits included Henry V at Regent’s Park, starring Michelle Terry in the title role).

Here, we have Zoe Waites as Cassius and Pandora Colin as Casca, both playing traditionally male roles without comment but with a fierce intelligence. They and the other senators reach the morally queasy decision to assassinate a leader who they fear is overstepping his power, and this, of course, has plenty of echoes right now. Unlike Ivo van Hove’s recent production as part of the Roman Tragedies, which saw frequent video appearances by Donald Trump, here a picture of the current President is confined to the programme (as well as another of Obama).

Yet it is no doubt these parallels that are driving the sudden surge of productions of this play; this is the fourth I’ve seen in the last six months, with two more major productions to follow at Bristol and London’s new Bridge Theatre in the coming months. Instead, Hastie’s production turns it into a contemporary political thriller about the exercise of and challenges to executive power, and the dangerous vacuum that can be created when it is overthrown. As the principled Brutus, Samuel West brings an understated yet firm oratorial fluidity to the role that marks his highly welcome return to Shakespeare, as well as generous return to Sheffield where he was formerly artistic director.

There’s also a powerful performance of brooding grief turned into rage from Elliot Cowan as Mark Antony, while Jonathan Hyde stalks the action in the title role, with regular ghostly reappearances after his death. A 23-strong ensemble from Sheffield People’s Theatre add numbers as the citizens of Rome; it’s a production that is bedded-in with the city itself, as Hastie puts down an immediate marker to integrate the two and not stand apart from his city – avoiding the source of Caesar’s own downfall.

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Impressive debut from Sheffield's new artistic director is a pertinent display of over-reached power