It’s quite hard to enjoy Shakespeare’s history plays these days if you have any sympathy for Blair’s decision to throw in Britain’s lot with America in the Iraq war. First, Nicholas Hytner gave us a revisionist version of Henry V in which the young king was portrayed as a shallow glory-seeker willing to embark on a reckless military adventure in order to cement his historical reputation. And now Deborah Warner has directed a version of Julius Caesar in which Brutus has been cast in the Blair role, first attempting to bring about regime change through the judicious use of violence, and then gradually succumbing to the maelstrom of death and destruction he has unwittingly unleashed.
My advice is to ignore Warner’s cack-handed attempt to inject the play with a bit of contemporary resonance and try to focus on the many things that there are to enjoy in this production. The action takes place on an epic scale, with over 100 actors flooding the stage for the crowd scenes, and you get a real sense of history unfolding before your eyes. Simon Russell Beale is terrific as Cassius — first devious, then holier-than-thou — and Ralph Fiennes is an intriguing Antony, portraying him as a kind of James Bond villain, bent on world domination. Even the actor playing Julius Caesar — John Shrapnel — makes a decent fist of a fairly thankless role. Only Anton Lesser as Brutus is disappointing. He plays him as a weak-minded idealist hopelessly out of his depth in the world of realpolitik, which makes it hard to understand why he is considered so vital to the success of the conspirators’ enterprise.
Of course, it’s full of things that don’t work, too, as any production on this scale is bound to be.