“Why, saw you anything more wonderful?”
Robert Hastie’s opening salvo as the new Artistic Director of Sheffield Theatres might not immediately quicken the pulse as we’ve hardly been lacking for productions of Julius Caesar. But it is soon apparent that this is a canny director at work, making his mark on the Crucible Theatre and how its space is used, on our notions of how Shakespeare is traditionally interpreted, establishing what looks like exciting times ahead for Sheffield.
With designer Ben Stones, Hastie opens out the stage into a space of transformative and unpredictable power – the modern political arena is evoked with its UN-style chambers and mod-cons but it is just as much the powder-keg of changeable public opinion. And the way in which the two intersect, feed into each other, thus feels as informed by hatemongering Sun or Daily Mail headline-grabbing antics as it does by the words of a sixteenth century writer.
Increasingly, that’s where the best modern Shakespearean productions are coming from, the ones that emphasise contemporary resonances whist understanding its classic underpinnings. And Hastie delivers in spades – supernumeraries from Sheffield People’s Theatre heckle loudly from the audience and are as easily incited to mob rule by Elliot Cowan’s excellent Mark Antony as the likes of Katie Hopkins wishes she had the insidious power to do.
Zoe Waites’ Cassius tips the gender politics of Jonathan Hyde’s thoroughly old-school Caesar into stark relief, and Samuel West’s Brutus is the embodiment of liberal intellectualism that seems so ill-equipped to deal with a fast-changing world. Their climactic debate is thoroughly scintillating, dimly but evocatively lit by Johanna Town (credit too to Emma Laxton’s sound work and Richard Taylor’s brooding score), a properly titanic struggle. Regime change rarely seemed so exciting.