Julius Caesar at Colchester Mercury

Julius Caesar by William ShakespeareMercury Theatre, Colchester until November 24

James Hayward

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 24 November 2007

WHAT could be more fitting than to present Shakespeare's most famous Roman play in Britain's oldest Roman town? And what a gripping production this is. Historical authenticity is out, replaced by a modern dress production, given by an all female cast, that delivers a powerful 21st Century punch.

The rusting oil drums that litter the stage suggest a vaguely middle-eastern setting, accentuated by the pashminas the cast wear as headdresses. Then there is designer Sara Perk's monumental wall - itself a brutal symbol of division. Here is an uneasy, faction-ridden republic teetering on the brink of totalitarian darkness.

There are other striking images, the bloodied body bags hoisted above the stage as the death toll mounts, the sinister hoodies of the Roman mob, and the "breaking news" video broadcasting of Mark Anthony's funeral oration.

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In this setting, Dee Evan's inventive production highlights the relevance today of the moral debate at the heart of Shakespeare's play, whether the end (the greater good) can ever justify the means (an assassination). It's political dynamite now, just as it must have been then, first performed only a few years before a group of conspirators plotted the assassination of the English head of state in 1605.

Amongst the cast of a dozen women, there's no real attempt to mimic masculine manners or movement - nor is it necessary, gender is irrelevant as the struggle for power unfolds. And it's often hard to believe there are so few actors, such a brilliant job they do of filling the stage with rampaging mobs and warring legions.

The violence is stylised, no swords or daggers, and is effectively underscored by Ansuman Biswas's percussive score, superbly performed by Nao Masuda. This works well for the multiple suicides (the defeated falling on their swords) that occur in the second act. It's less successful in the climactic assassination scene, where it blunts the contrast between the bloody reality of violent death and the theoretical philosophising about it that has gone before.

It's very much an ensemble piece, but Miranda Bell stands out as an arrogant Caesar, Christine Absalom and Shuna Snow complement each other well as conspirators Brutus and Cassius (especially in their campfire reconciliation scene), Kelly Williams is excellent as the manipulative Mark Anthony, and Kate Copeland injects a sardonic humour as the bespectacled Casca.