Julius Caesar (RSC/Barbican)

Is it possible to view the events of 44 BC through anything beyond the lens of the political earthquakes of 2016? Not – I venture to suggest – if the hand that crafts the history belongs to the man who explains England to the English (and, almost in passing, invents English, the language now oft placed in the dumbest of dumb mouths).

We’re in Rome, where Julius Caesar is half-heartedly turning down the kingship urged by the masses who are placated and enthused by his conquests and tributes. But the (dare I say the word?) Elite see the dangers of such absolute power and the corruption that surely follows. Emboldened by the ideologue Cassius, whom Caesar, arrogant but no fool, rightly suspects of ill will, Brutus, so, so high-minded Brutus, is turned to conspirator – for the good of Rome, natch.

Murder, war and suicide ensue as chaos, as ever in Shakespeare, follows on inevitably from a house divided – a monarch, for all their faults, a wiser choice than that of the will of the people. (Lest we forget, the play was probably written in 1599, when the Queen without issue was but four years from death). The playwright had a barely concealed agenda – and who could blame him?

Alex Waldmann gives Brutus his hesitant nobility, all cleverly thought out philosophical positions and balanced politics puffed up on the hot air of virtuous rhetoric. He’s a good man in a bad world. The funeral oration may rouse the mob to carry him shoulder high, but, like David Cameron’s pre-referendum “concessions” from the EU, Brutus’s appeal to the rationality of the citizens is too flimsy to withstand the blast of emotional energy that sweeps his power away.

That whirlwind comes from James Corrigan’s Mark Antony, an underestimated sports jock whose case is all crocodile tears and cynical, if skilled, emotional manipulation, his target the heart’s fervour not the head’s logic. When Antony produces Caesar’s will, with its 75 drachmas for every citizen, I can’t have been alone in wanting to shout, “Put that on a bus and you’ve won mate!”.

The antagonists get excellent support, particularly from Martin Hutson’s wild-eyed Cassius, railing against Caesar’s ambition while unable to contain his own and a smarmy, supercilious Jon Tarcy as Octavius Caesar, on his way to God status and doesn’t he know it? There’s some fine turns from the hoi polloi too and a reminder that the often stated contention that if Shakespeare were alive now, he’d be writing Eastenders can be countered with the suggestion that he might be drafting Christmas cracker jokes with puns like these.

It’s a gimmick-free production with clanging metal, gory blood and one particularly gruesome killing (though not as bad a fate as those suffered by one or two kids in I, Claudius) and, for all the contemporary politics bubbling to mind almost minute by minute, it’s great fun too – if you like your thrillers populated by alpha males permanently high on testosterone.

Ultimately, as is the case with the Basquiat exhibition in the same building, one is left wondering just how these geniuses stared into the soul of man and saw the future so clearly. And why we did not, do not and will not heed their warnings.

Julius Caesar continues at the Barbican Theatre as part of the Rome MMXVII season until 20 January.

(Broadway Baby Review)

Foshow rating 3/5

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