Julius Caesar at The Crucible Theatre, Sheffield

 Sam West (foreground) as Brutus. Photo from  https://www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk/whats-on/julius-caesar

Sam West (foreground) as Brutus. Photo from https://www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk/whats-on/julius-caesar

Julius Caesar is the first production directed by the Sheffield Theatres' new artistic director, Robert Hastie, and stars as Brutus Sam West, who was the AD from 2005-2007, Jonathan Hyde (who will always be the dad from Jumanji to me) as Caesar, and Elliot Cowan (Darcy from Lost in Austen) as Marc Antony. It was a gripping roller-coaster ride from start to finish, feeling much shorter than its 2hrs 45mins, and is packed with electrifying performances, gory action and consummate use of the space.

This was the first time I'd seen Julius Caesar, although I've seen a lot of Shakespeare (and acted in a couple), and I wasn't sure what to expect, particularly not having a good idea of the plot beforehand. But the language was extremely simple to understand, and the plot was easy to follow, even with conspiracy, betrayal, and doubling up of actors. Part of that is probably down to the script itself, but much is also owed to the performances of a great cast, including members of the Sheffield People's Theatre who made up most of the crowds.

The set was minimal, and the costumes are generically modern, depicting Caesar as a Trump-like leader of Rome, with fans among the populus and enemies in the elite. Sam West was brilliant as Brutus, playing him at first as a reluctant co-conspirator, eventually turning to a more pragmatic rebel leader in the second half. Cassius, Casca, Trebonius, and Octavius all traditionally male roles, were played by women to great effect, and the cast was impressively diverse in terms of race and actors with visible disabilities. I really enjoyed the different nuances in the friendships brought about by casting them gender-blind. Zoe Waites was amazing as Cassius, which is a really meaty role that I would love to have the chance to play.

The modern setting meant that the second half was set in a kind of post-apocalyptic cityscape, which was really effectively evoked with a few piles of broken and burnt-out furniture and some scattered papers. The sound design was very impressive as well - not much music, but great use of speakers presumably in the ceiling to create storm effects, drumming rain, and nesting pigeons. The direction nicely made the best of the thrust stage, with the performers mostly set at diagonals so that the whole audience got to see more than just the backs of people's heads. The staging kept the action moving a lot of the time, making any set pieces and moments of stillness the more noticeable.

There was a lot of blood called for in this play - the conspirators bathe their arms in Caesar's wounds, his body is brought before the common people, people are hanged, shot, stabbed. There was one particularly good effect where Cinna was shot in the back of the head - the actor concealed a blood pack (some kind of gel pod containing fake blood), and when the blank fired, he pretended to convulse, smacking his hand against his forehead so the pod exploded outwards, spraying blood and bloodstained gel outwards. Really cool.

My local amateur group, the Studio Theatre Club, is planning on staging Julius Caesar this November, with a similar gender-blind casting, and I can't wait to try out. We're setting it in a Gulf War, with desert army uniforms etc. so it'll look quite different, but if we managed to capture half of the energy of this one, it'll be a good show!

Julius Caesar is on at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, until June 10th. Book tickets here.