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.

“I’d like to see Barack Obama play Brutus in Julius Caesar…” Shakespeare Magazine meets Dr Erin Sullivan of the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon

Dr Erin Sullivan of The Shakespeare Institute

Dr Erin Sullivan of The Shakespeare Institute

 
Which play or area of Shakespeare are you working on right now – and what are you getting from it?
ERIN SULLIVAN: “Right now I’m working on Shakespeare and digital technology, so my focus is on how technology is influencing or shaping the performance of Shakespeare today. Some of that has to do with the development of live broadcasting, online streaming, or where people might see a production through a screen digitally. Some of it is where directors are using digital technology on stage, live video on stage or a TV screen maybe to show a 24-hour news cycle alongside a Roman play or something like that.

“Then the last area of it is looking at directors or artists that are thinking about whether it’s possible to take performance fully into the digital sphere – for instance, stage a play using social media on Twitter or Instagram, or use that in a hybrid way with production.

Andrew Scott as Hamlet at the Almeida Theatre

Andrew Scott as Hamlet at the Almeida Theatre

 
“What am I getting from it? Lots! It’s really fun because it means getting to go and see lots of different things. There’s lots of things I’ve been to, thinking it’s not for my project – and then a screen appears and I start rifling through my bag for a notebook! I think, in general, I’m really interested in how people take hold of Shakespeare, what people of different generations have found exciting or emotionally engaging about his plays. Technology has really proliferated and become such an important part of our lives in the last 20 years. That’s one of the biggest changes I’ve seen in my own life, so I think that’s why I was drawn to it.

“A lot of what I’m looking at is still big theatre companies like the RSC or the National Theatre and sometimes slightly smaller ones like the Almeida, but it has also opened up a whole world of what you might call ‘grassroots Shakespeare’ – amateur versus professional. A lot of people are doing Shakespeare themselves in lots of ways and using things like Twitter to explore a character or look at the text in a new way.”

What have you learned about Shakespeare that would have surprised your younger self?
“Gosh, there must be many things. I know for certain when I first came here to do my MA, the thing that surprised me most was, in some ways, that I didn’t know anything about the different versions of different plays. So, the idea that for Hamlet there were three different printings of the play either during Shakespeare’s time or shortly after his death, and that there are some significant differences between those printings – the same with King Lear – that’s something that I remember really blew my mind when I first got here.

Quarto edition of King Lear, 1608

Quarto edition of King Lear, 1608

 
“It’s interesting that in a play like King Lear there can be one line and different versions of that line that actors or scholars can choose from, because although the shape of the play itself is still pretty much the same, there are a lot of moments when you can pick your favourite version. There’s a bit more scope for playing with the text or reinventing it at times that we might not expect. It seems a long time ago, when I came to study, but that’s the thing that surprised me the most.”

Which Shakespeare character most resembles you?
“There’s lots of ones in different moments that I identify with – Brutus with his pensive deliberateness or Falstaff and his fun, but I think the one that first came to mind was Rosalind (As You Like It). In the way of, hopefully, her vivaciousness, her determination to get things her way, but in a good sense! Really going after what she wants, really embracing love and friendship, and that being an important part of their life. That’s maybe one that I would aspire to be like, I should say, as opposed to saying that’s me.”

Rosalind (As You Like It)

Rosalind (As You Like It)

 
If I asked you to give me a Shakespeare quotation, which is the first one that comes to your mind?
“Definitely something from Hamlet, and all the speeches came to mind. I remember one quote that always really struck me when I was younger studying was Hamlet saying ‘there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so’. I thought that was so true. There’s so much black and white truth, but then so much of it is also about the way that we take a certain idea and make it mean something for us. Also, at the darker ends of things, people can really twist things back and forth. So, yes, that was the first one that came to mind.”

What is your favourite Shakespeare myth?
“I like the one about Shakespeare poaching deer at Charlecote. I think just because it makes him seem like kind of a lovable rogue! I guess it’s a Falstaffian or Eastcheap sort of side in that it’s not really that bad of a thing to do, but a bit naughty and a bit funny. Also it very much locates him here in, not in Stratford itself, but out here in the Warwickshire area. Just trying to think about what he would have been like and what he would have got up to.”

You have the power to cast anyone (actor or otherwise) to play any Shakespearean character. Who do you choose – and which role do they play?
“Gosh, there’s so many good ones! I know who I want to cast, but let me think about who I want them to play… Okay, so I’d like to see Barack Obama as Brutus in Julius Caesar. I thought Henry V might be quite nice too, but now that he’s sidelined from power a little, I’d like to see him play that very pensive, thoughtful, would-be politician and see what he makes of it. I think he’d be really good, too! I think he’s very intelligent and quite cerebral, but also funny.”

President Obama with actor Leonardo DiCaprio

President Obama with actor Leonardo DiCaprio

 
“I think he’d be a good Henry V too because he can be fiery and rousing and, I think, he’s got such a nice sense of humour and I think that nice act at the end of Henry V with the wooing of Catherine, I think he’d be pretty good in. Maybe if I could have the two shows in rep, I’d have him doing both! That would be my ideal.”

For more on Dr Erin Sullivan, visit her blog, Digital Shakespeares.