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New York’s recent explosively controversial Shakespeare in the Park was All About Trump, but at Bristol’s Old Vic Theatre there was a rather more British take on Shakespeare’s perennially politicised play “Julius Caesar”

Julius Caesar at Bristol Old Vic - Lynn Farleigh (Calpurnia) Julian Glover (Julius Caesar) - Photo by Simon Purse
Photos by Simon Purse

Veteran actor Julian Glover’s Caesar is no Trump, but the fact that he’s beloved by the young while feared and hated by the recently-young does put one in mind of another JC – Jeremy Corbyn – and this production definitely takes its energy from today’s (30 June 2017) sense of post-election turbulence. There’s even an “Oh, Julius Caesar!” refrain from the mob in the opening scene.
These things never quite fit, of course. Arrogant and vain, Glover’s JC would never be mistaken for an allotment-tending socialist. You get the sense that his military victories and territorial conquests have made him a bit mad.

Julius Caesar at Bristol Old Vic - Afolabi Alli (Metellus) and Rudolphe Mdlongwa (Cinna) - Photo by Simon Purse
Indeed, for all his belief in his own godlike prowess, there’s a King Lear-like frailty to this Caesar. The one glimpse of his political instincts – when he singles out Cassius as dangerous – merely confirms that his radar is working but his defences are down.

Apart from Caesar, Calpurnia (Lynn Farleigh) and the Soothsayer (John Hartoch), the rest of the characters are all played by students from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and there’s plenty of ascending talent on display. Brutus is portrayed by Freddie Bowerman as a ramrod-straight patrician whose much-discussed honour never quite masks the suggestion that he’s acting out of vanity. As Cassius, Edward Stone is an oily George Osborne-type. A persuasive political realist, he needs Brutus on board for the conspiracy to succeed – but his deference to Brutus will prove a fatal flaw.

Julius Caesar at Bristol Old Vic - Alice Kerrigan (Cinna the Poet) with company - Photo by Simon Purse
Casca is one of Shakespeare’s most marvellously bitchy creations and, played with icy disdain by Eleanor House, gets quite a few laughs (in the early scenes, that is – Casca is also the conspirator who initiates the stabbing of Caesar). The gender-swapped casting means this Julius Caesar takes place in a world where wives like Calpurnia and Portia (Sarah Livingston) are essentially enslaved by the patriarchy, and yet it is simultaneously permissible for women to have high-flying political careers and fight in the civil war. Most significantly, Octavius becomes Octavia, played by Rosy McEwen with emotionless hauteur, reminiscent of a killer robot from the Terminator films.

Julius Caesar at Bristol Old Vic - Freddie Bowerman (Brutus) - Photo by Simon Purse
Mark Antony is played by Ross O’Donnellan as a party animal with a broad Irish accent, a fact which seemed to greatly amuse the two blokes sitting next to me. I thought it was a good choice for a character whom the conspirators underestimate until he strikes them with deadly force. The scene after Caesar’s assassination where Antony insists on shaking hands with the blood-soaked killers worked particularly well. It starts off as desperate survival technique, but it allows us to see Antony gradually get the measure of each of his opponents, and begin to realise he can beat them.

Julius Caesar at Bristol Old Vic - Ross O'Donnellan (Mark Antony) - Photo by Simon Purse
The mob scenes and battles are skilfully deployed in this lean, fast-moving production. The supporting cast all have a lot to do, playing multiple characters and at times literally running riot. The modern-day dress code of business suits and military fatigues is similar to the Ralph Fiennes Coriolanus film. But director Simon Dormandy’s Caesar has strengths of its own as it points, Soothsayer-like, to the consequences of political meltdown.

Julius Caesar ran at Bristol Old Vic from 9 June to 1 July 2017.
Go here for more on Bristol Old Vic.
Go here for more on Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

Goat’s Dung, Mummified Flesh and Vomiting… This is what passed for state-of-the-art health care in Shakespeare’s day. The authors of new book ‘Maladies & Medicine: Exploring Health & Healing 1540-1740′ reveal six stomach-emptying (sometimes quite literally so) cures from early modern England

Medic pic 1
By Jennifer Evans and Sara Read

In William Shakespeare’s time, the concept of the four humours dominated ideas about the body. The humours were fluids: blood, choler, melancholy, and phlegm, which needed to be kept in equilibrium in order for the body to stay healthy. Illness was usually, although not always, understood as an accumulation of excess or a corruption of one of these fluids.

For the most part, medical treatments were gentle ones designed to restore balance by drawing out ill humours and purging the body of excess. Remedies might also balance out the body by counteracting the effects of diseases. For example, cooling drinks might reduce the heat of the body caused by fever. Shakespeare’s own son-in-law, Dr John Hall, husband of his elder daughter Susanna, practised these mainly conservative cures in the first instance for many illnesses. So, in one case he prescribed a double-folded linen cloth filled with butter to be placed on the side of an elderly lady with stomach ache.

Not all remedies were pleasant though, particularly not when viewed from our modern perspective. Practitioners could resort to drastic means of purging the body, or could prescribe medicines that contained unappetising ingredients. Here are six remedies you would probably want to avoid today…


Many practitioners thought that raising blisters on the skin was a good way of drawing out unwanted humours and therefore disease. An anonymous treatise from a 1577 book recommended the notoriously dangerous green flies known as cantharides (actually not flies at all, but small iridescent beetles) which, we’re told, were easily available from the local apothecary shop. These w‪ere placed in a mortar with vinegar and some breadcrumbs to make a paste, which was applied to ‘the sore place, that is, where the most grief is’ for around seven hours. Once dry, it had to be teased off with the tip of a knife. After the skin blistered it had to be burst and, as the author explained, ‘with your finger thrust out the water softly’. The problem with blisters was that while the ‘the pain of the disease is gone’, the patient then had to heal from the new sore.


Imagine if you felt poorly and your doctor prescribed cutting open a vein in your arm or ankle, with a lance and no anaesthetic, to remove some of your ‘excess’ blood. The amount of blood removed was dependent on the condition. Because blood was considered to be a ‘hot’ humour, phlebotomy was often used to take heat from the body in the case of fevers. It wasn’t recommended to be used on children, fortunately, since all their blood was needed to help them grow. Doctors didn’t let blood willy-nilly. As one sixteenth-century physician (who published a book as ‘A. T’ in 1596) instructed, before letting blood you must consider ‘the age of the patient, the complexion, the time of the year, the region, the custom, the strength, and the vehemence of the disease’. Not all bloodletting was done by cutting into the body. As many people know, an alternative was to apply leeches to the skin.

Induced Vomiting

Most people today hate being sick, as they did in the past. One early doctor, Philip Barrough described in his 1583 medical guide how unpleasant feelings of nausea came from ‘a naughty and wicked motion of the expulsive virtue of the stomach’. But this innate urge to eject things was put to good use in early modern times, when emetic medicines that caused patients to be sick were a routine cure. Vomiting was also used to ward off ill health. John Clarke, an apothecary, took ‘a vomit’ once every month or six weeks as a preventative against all manner of infirmities. He wrote that if everyone did the same then it would save 20,000 pounds of tobacco which was currently being used by people as a medicine. Clarke described how to make a posset that would bring up a great quantity of phlegm and other corrupt humours, leaving you feeling clear headed and very well.

Mummified Flesh

In Shakespeare’s time, remedies composed of multiple ingredients could also include some rather unappealing components. A text published a few decades later (in the 1650s) claimed that many
medicaments are taken out of a Live Man, or from a dead man. From a live man, we have Hairs, Nails, Spittle, Ear-wax, Milk, Seed, Blood, Menstrual Blood, Secondines, Urine, Dung, Lice, Wormes, Stones of Bladder & Kidneyes, &c. From a dead man, Skin, Fat, Scul, Brain, Teeth, Bones Mummy

Preserved human flesh (mummy) was found in several medicines including an unguent to staunch blood recommended in a 1605 medical text by Christoph Wirsung, a German physician. Dead men’s flesh didn’t always have to be put into a medicine. Many people waited at the gallows in the hope that they could have their boils and swellings stroked with the hanged man’s hand, which was thought to have healing properties.

Breast Milk

In early modern notions of the body, breast milk was created from menstrual blood, which was diverted after the birth of the child to the breasts where it was ‘concocted’ into milk. It was thought to have healing properties. William Copland’s Treasurie of Health suggested that ‘The yolke of an egge, mingled w[ith] Rose water, bran, & womans milk’ was a good medicine to assuage pain and to drive unhealthy humours out of the body. While Thomas Vicary’s English-mans Treasure recommended a mixture of wormwood, plantain, rose water, breast milk and egg white to heal bloodshot eyes.

Animal Dung

It wasn’t just parts of the human body and its products that were used in medicines. Plasters sometimes contained rather pungent components. Dung, usually from a cow, formed the main component of several plasters recommended to ease swelling. Andrew Boorde’s Breuiary of Health, for example, suggested a remedy made of goat dung and honey. Christoph Wirsung’s medical text suggested a plaster of bayberries mixed with goat’s dung to ease the dropsy, a disease characterised by watery swelling of the stomach.

Jennifer Evans is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Hertfordshire
Sara Read is Lecturer in English at Loughborough University

Their new book Maladies and Medicines: Exploring Health and Healing, 1540-1740 is out now, published by Pen and Sword Books.

Vsit the authors’ blog:

We caught up with theatre maker Ed Viney at Bristol Shakespeare Festival where he was directing the new comedy play “Shakespeare’s Worst”

Which play or area of Shakespeare are you working on right now – and what are you getting from it?
“Currently working on Shakespeare’s Worst which is a play by Mike Reiss, former writer/producer on The Simpsons, and Nick Newlin, Shakespearean scholar. It’s about a group of actors staging The Two Gentlemen of Verona, arguably Shakespeare’s worst play. It’s a play on a play and all the things you’d like to say when sat in a theatre watching a really awful production of Shakespeare. It’s very liberating!”

What have you learned about Shakespeare that would have surprised your younger self?
“It’s deceptively simple when you say it aloud.”

Which Shakespeare character most resembles you?

“Benedick.” (Much Ado About Nothing)

If I ask you to give me a Shakespeare quotation, which is the first one that comes to your mind?
“Simply the thing I am shall make me live.” (Parolles in All’s Well That Ends Well)

What’s your favourite Shakespeare-related fact?

“Shakespeare wrote for actors.”

You have the power to cast anyone in the world (actor or otherwise) to play any Shakespearean character. Who do you choose – and which role do they play?

“Robert Downey Jnr as Lady Macbeth.”

Shakespeare’s Worst has now ended, but Bristol Shakespeare Festival continues until 29 July.

Go to the Festival website for more details.

The lively, eclectic and much-loved Bristol Shakespeare Festival runs throughout July. Shakespeare Magazine’s Editor Pat Reid has previewed the Festival (and interviewed Festival Manager Jacqui Ham) for The Bristol Magazine

Image: The Handlebards

Pat Reid writes:
Shakespeare Magazine is based in the city of Bristol, in the South West of England. We’re 70 miles from Stratford-upon-Avon (with which we share the River Avon) and 120 miles from London. But we’re very lucky to have a Shakespeare tradition all of our own. You may have heard of the historic Bristol Old Vic Theatre, along with its prestigious Theatre School. We also have a modern Shakespeare Tradition pioneered by the Tobacco Factory Theatres. And we have no less than four pubs named after Shakespeare!

But perhaps the most exciting event of all for a Bristol-based Shakespeare fan like myself is the annual Bristol Shakespeare Festival. This year the Festival is bigger than ever, with an impressive array of touring companies and one-off events taking over the city during the whole of July. I’m delighted to have once again been asked to preview Bristol Shakespeare Festival for The Bristol Magazine. I hope that it will encourage Bristolians to come out and enjoy a Shakespeare show. And I hope that visitors from further afield will also come and experience what Bristol has to offer. I can certainly promise that it will be “gert lush”, as we say in Bristol!

Read the full article in The Bristol Magazine here.