This bloody story of conspiracy and murder, noble intentions and ignoble actions begins the RSC’s Rome season.

When Caesar is assassinated by a group of prominent senators, one of his staunchest supporters, Mark Antony, manages not only to turn the crowd against the conspirators but also to defeat them in battle. inAngus Jackson returns to the directorial chair following his sell-out RSC productions of Oppenheimer (2014) and last year’s Don Quixote.   

Angus Jackson brings a contemporary edge to Shakespeare’s Ancient Rome

The 30th of June 2016: Just days after the EU referendum, Boris Johnson shocked the nation by announcing that he would not be standing for leadership of his party. In a speech, he described this as “a time not to fight against the tide of history but to take that tide at the flood and sail on to fortune.” Lifted from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, the quote hints tantalisingly at a story of betrayal and power play going on behind the scenes of the EU debate. It was an astonishing week in British history, but perhaps what is even more remarkable is the fact that it could be understood and interpreted through a reference to a 400-year-old play telling the story of 2000-year-old events.

Currently scrutinising Julius Caesar and its meaning for modern audiences is Angus Jackson, director of the RSC's forthcoming Rome season. This year, with the help of two other directors, Jackson is in charge of staging all four of Shakespeare's Roman plays, alongside a series of talks about their contemporary relevance, and an exhibition of political cartoons from the last 200 years that have used Shakespeare as a basis for satire.

“I think it's extraordinary that these truths run through history like the lettering through a stick of rock,” says Jackson. “They resonate across the ages: every time anybody says, 'Et tu, Brute?' we know what they mean, and every overly powerful individual is viewed through the lens of Caesar.”

Of the four plays, Jackson (whose previous RSC credits include Oppenheimer and Don Quixote) will direct the first and last of the season, with Iqbal Khan (Othello, Much Ado About Nothing) heading up Antony And Cleopatra, and Blanche McIntyre (Two Noble Kinsmen) leading Titus Andronicus. Though it's neither the first Shakespeare wrote nor the first in terms of chronological setting, Julius Caesar seemed like the obvious choice to start the season - which begins, aptly enough, in the run up to the Ides of March.

“Interestingly when we go to London we will actually be opening with Coriolanus, so there they'll be in chronological order, but I rather like what we're doing in Stratford. I thought it would be a good idea to open with my own production of Julius Caesar, and we wanted to tie that together with Antony And Cleopatra, so we're opening with this big, epic story across those two plays; and then to do the next one (Titus Andronicus) further in the future made sense. That's going to be really exciting and bloody, and then, when we've laid waste to this empire, we go back to the beginning (in Coriolanus) and show you how it started with the best of intentions, before personalities and ambitions got in the way.”

Personal ambition, rabble rousing and populist uprising are at the heart of Julius Caesar's thrilling political plot, which throws the conflicted idealism of Brutus up against the confident, smooth-talking opportunism of Mark Antony. Where Antony wins over the mob through appeal to emotion, loyalty and sheer strength of personality, Brutus makes the fatal mistake of assuming that good intentions will be sufficient to make his case. It's a pertinent predicament to our own tumultuous times, where polls mislead and every argument is laden with highly charged language. 

“Rhetoric is the most brilliant thing to talk about with this play, especially right after Trump takes over from Obama. We've just had the most extraordinary rhetorician as President of America, and if you compare the way he speaks to the way Trump speaks, it's really interesting. I might also argue that the Brexit debate was swayed enormously by rhetoric, and that only after the vote did people really start filtering through the facts.”

Ironically, in attempting to secure his beloved republic from the threat of dictatorship, Brutus ends up creating a power vacuum which is filled by exactly the kind of absolute government that he feared - a story we've seen playing out again and again throughout the ages, most recently in Middle Eastern states. The fate of the country hangs in the balance, and Brutus' catastrophic failure ushers in a new era for Rome: here the Republic ends and the Empire begins. 

Today, Classical history is rarely taught in-depth in schools, and it's common to treat the Roman era as a single, easily digestible unit, forgetting that it actually covers a period of about 1000 years. To put that in context, it's about as long as a unified English (let alone British) kingdom has existed today – so the Romans of Coriolanus would have had about as much in common with the Romans of Titus Andronicus as 21st-century Brits have with the Anglo-Saxons. With the help of designer Robert Innes Hopkins, Jackson hopes to emphasise that rolling on of centuries between the plays. 

“We thought we'd start with a kind of modern version of Rome, the idea being to give them an environment that will look to our eye now as it would have looked to them at the time. So it's got all the pillars and the steps and the togas, but rather than having cumbersome, heritage clothing and weapons, we've got people tearing around in garments they can wear in a very practical way. Then in Antony and Cleopatra, that very modern-seeming world comes into collision with the beautiful, rich, ancient society of Egypt. 

“By the time we get to Titus, which is hundreds of years and hundreds of emperors later, it will all be in modern dress, with things like severed heads in Tesco carrier bags. That fits in beautifully with the overarching season, because it's like this empire has evolved and decayed and become more complex and cruel, and it's difficult to know who's really in charge. Then after we've laid waste to it all we go back and do Coriolanus in really deep period, where they're slugging out in the mud with broadswords and it's all about how much muscle you've got.”

Cutting edge music from the likes of Laura Mvula and Mira Calix will help to open up the characters' emotional and imaginative worlds to contemporary audiences. 

“If HBO and Netflix have taught us anything, it's that you can get people really interested in historical figures if you shine the light on the people and what they thought and felt. Having a moment of emotion supported by something you might hear at the Mercury Awards today immediately tells the audience that these are people that think like they do.”

Following the phenomenal success of last year's Shakespeare 400 anniversary celebrations, the Roman season was conceived by RSC Artistic Director Greg Doran partly as a way of marking 2000 years since the death of Ovid. In a sense, Ovid's Metamorphoses were to Shakespeare as Shakespeare's stories are to us: in the same way as Boris Johnson can describe post-Brexit machinations using Julius Caesar, so the tortured Lavinia in Titus Andronicus turns to the story of Philomel to explain the horrors she endures. 

Though best known for directing new writing (including plays by Kwame Kwei-Armah - read our interview here), for Jackson, who grew up in Birmingham, working at the RSC is like a sort of homecoming. 

“It's funny - I just saw Simon Russell Beale playing Prospero in The Tempest, and I can remember seeing him in Sam Mendes’ production when I can't have been much older than 12. My parents always brought me when I was a kid, and as soon as I got my driving licence, I would just go off by myself and see any number of shows in Stratford, so I feel incredibly comfortable there.”

“I think when you're putting on Shakespeare, if you're too reverent to do anything new with it, you end up with something that can come over a bit academic, which has its own validity, but I'm big on narrative and dramaturgy and making things fresh and interesting. As a new writing director, you treat the play like it's just been written, and I think that's the best way to approach any play - Shakespeare, Marlowe, Beckett or Brecht.”

The RSC's Rome season at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, commences with Julius Caesar, which shows from 3 March to 9 September.

The season continues with Antony And Cleopatra, 11 March - 7 September, and Titus Andronicus, 23 June – 2 September.  Dates for Coriolanus are yet to be announced. 

on Tue, 31 Jan 2017

For a play so given to long, rhetorical speeches, Angus Jackson's Julius Caesar feels as lean and muscular as the cast who populate its stylish vision of Ancient Rome. It's elegant, but refreshingly unfussy, keeping us on tenterhooks throughout a remarkably speedy seeming two and a half hours.

The atmosphere is volatile, tension building through Mira Calix's ominous, jarring score and Robert Innes' Hopkins' design, which takes as its centrepiece a statue of a lion viciously devouring a horse. We're constantly aware that, beneath the sumptuous, cinematic gloss of warm lighting on proud Classical columns, there's raw brutality just waiting to burst out. Nor does this forewarning reduce the shock when it finally does: the cold, ruthless violence of this production at one point elicits one of the loudest gasps you're likely to ever hear from a theatre audience.

Yet in the vein of slick TV dramas from Game of Thrones to The Night Manager, House of Cards to SS-GB, the real skill of Jackson and his enthralling cast is in making all the talking, the thoughtful silences and moments of physical restraint just as riveting and dramatic as snapping bones, blood-soaked stabbings and crowd scenes which always feel much bigger and rowdier than they really are.

Few do this as well as Alex Waldmann – an actor whose neurons you can practically see firing with every slightest movement. With his talent for creating complex inner lives for characters with subtly shifting thoughts, he excels as the fraught and introspective Brutus.

That said, this is an exceptional cast all round. James Corrigan dazzles with the sheer force of personality he brings to Mark Antony, while Andrew Woodall is a powerful presence as the would-be emperor, possessed of all the supreme arrogance of an absolute ruler, confident that he is loved and feared by all. Martin Hutson's Cassius is a livewire – wild-eyed, intense, fretful, quick to wrath and jealousy and living up to that “rash humour” that he claims his mother gave him, making him a perfect foil for Waldmann's much more temperate and contained Brutus. Hannah Morrish also makes a strong impression in her brief appearance as Portia, and Tom McCall lends colour to the usually unremarkable Casca, his fearfulness bordering on paranoia variously adding suspense and humour.

Those looking for something fresh and radical won't find it here. In this stripped-back, traditional production, there's no obvious “take” or reinterpretation of the story through a modern lens. In this, it's quite the opposite of the RSC's last Caesar, which saw the action relocated to a contemporary African dictatorship. Nevertheless, as ever, its political pertinence is inescapable. In Caesar's distrust of Cassius as somebody who thinks and reads too much, we can hear echoes of our own leaders' newfound disdain for “experts”, or the current US President's inability to name a book he'd read besides his own. Elsewhere, Antony's claims to be an ordinary, plain-speaking man, along with all his empty promises to the people, bring to mind our politicians' talk of “hard-working families”, and their emphasis, where appropriate, on their own “ordinary” backgrounds. Rioting and violence in the streets have made such an unwelcome resurgence in this decade that the murder of Cinna the Poet feels terrifyingly close to home. As Cassius so prophetically wonders, “How many ages hence / shall this our lofty scene be acted over / in states unborn and accents yet unknown!”

But there's cause for another sort of lamentation here as well, regret for a way in which our times feel very alien to the world that Shakespeare shows us. Looking at the sorry state of political oratory today, for all their slipperiness, it's hard not to feel a pang of nostalgia for great speeches like those made by Brutus, Cassius, Antony et al – to mourn a time when skill and cleverness were valued.

Reviewed by Heather Kincaid

4 Stars on Fri, 24 Mar 2017

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