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.