‘Now they are almost on him’

‘Now they are almost on him’

The morning of Good Friday. Two weeks and three days before we begin filming Julius Caesar. In just ten days we start work at our location, cleaning, building sets – and driving away pigeons. We are a significantly bigger crew now than we were a week ago, but it’s still a holiday for most. The panic has yet to kick in. At the RSC rehearsal rooms in south London, director Greg Doran has scheduled a session for, first, an exploration of  Act V Scene 3 (the death of Cassius), and then some time working alone with Ray Fearon on his role of Mark Antony. Along with the stage management team, I sit at a table at one end of the large room. In the centre is a circle of six chairs, and around are the spindly lines of coloured tape that mark out the dimensions of the stage and the set.

Since our location visit on Monday (see post here), the film team has been busy identifying additional crew members, struggling finally to sign the production contracts and preparing the thousand things necessary for the location shoot, from insurances to a honey wagon (as the temporary toilets are always known, although goodness knows why). It’s a bit of cliché, but a great deal of everyday mundane work goes into making a film: organising meetings, negotiating prices, preparing schedules.

In the rehearsal room Greg starts with Plutarch. As is well-known, Shakespeare’s prime source for Julius Caesar was Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Lives, written in the late first century. Greg starts with some notes about Cassius’ character from the Greek author, and then he refers again and again to a modern translation of Plutarch as he takes the five actors through the seventy or so lines in the production’s cut of Act V Scene 3.

As a stage director, Greg is known for his scrupulous attention to the text – and that’s what I’m seeing this morning. With the actors he examines every phrase, every word, teasing out the meaning or meanings, but also trying to understand what each character is seeing as they speak, where and what they are looking at. It’s a really open discussion, with questions and suggestions circling among the six of them, and there is something of the atmosphere of the seminar room as they jointly interrogate these words that were written more than four hundred years ago.

Yet there is also a strongly pragmatic aspect to all this study. As becomes apparent when, well over an hour after the readings began, the cast push back the chairs and start to play the scene in space. Their new understanding of the details of troop dispositions, and of who is where and who has come from where, helps enormously with the initial blocking. Parts of the scene begin to organise themselves, as if the relative positions of bodies at particular moments are the only ones possible – the movements come to seem almost inevitable, and as a consequence strikingly “right”.

Needless to say, this is exciting to watch, and the force of Cassius’ suicide – even at this first stage, with no costumes or weapons, and with no sense of the character’s journey to this point – comes through with real impact. With not much imaginative effort, I can also transpose this scene to the setting we’ve chosen for it at the location – and I’m immediately excited to see how it will look and sound on screen.

On Wednesday evening we had an art department meeting with Greg where – with just one or two uncertainties – we decided on which parts of our location we’ll use for which scenes. The main ones, of course, we already knew, but now we allocated each element of the script more precisely. This will allow production designer Michael Vale and art director Matty Wainwright to start building the walls we need, collecting the props and working out what we’ll paint and what we might cover up in other ways. Detailed scheduling of our twelve days of filming can also now move ahead.

There are times when I think we’re in reasonable shape for a production that is seventeen days away from filming, and times when I think we don’t have a prayer of being properly ready. If only we had another week… I find myself thinking – before I remember that my colleague Seb Grant and I long ago recognised that’s what you think at every point in a schedule and at whatever stage of preparedness you might be at. If only we had another week… In the scene that Greg has been rehearsing, as Pindarus looks out across the battlefield, he says of Titinius (mistakenly, and fatefully), ‘Now they are almost on him’. Yep.

Previously on the Julius Caesar blog:

‘A mourning Rome, a dangerous Rome’, 2 April
‘Tell us what hath chanced today’, 30 March
‘Shakespeare’s Africa play’, 29 February
‘Friends, Romans, countrymen…’, 24 November

Image: a replica C. Cassius Loginus AR Denarius coin, yours for just $10 from coinreplicas.com.