‘Tell us what hath chanced today’

30th March 2012

Monday morning, five days ago. Just after ten o’clock on the top floor of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s south London rehearsal rooms the cast and creatives of Julius Caesar meet for the first time. Our chairs are set in a circle that just about squeezes into the space. Director Gregory Doran, the newly announced Artistic Director-designate of the RSC, introduces first the post’s incumbent, Michael Boyd. Michael expresses his pleasure that Greg (as he’ll be from now on in these blogs) is taking over from him. He talks also about the excitement and ambition of the World Shakespeare Festival, of which Julius Caesar is a central component. The stage version opens in Stratford-upon-Avon at the end of May, but when Greg introduces me, I remind him and everyone that exactly four weeks from now we will have turned over on principal photography for the film version. Four weeks. That’s, er, just twenty-eight days.

Welcome back to the world of producing Shakespeare for the screen. We have, as some of you will know, been here before. At the end of 2009 and into the following year, I blogged the making of Macbeth, directed by Rupert Goold from his Chichester Festival Theatre production with Patrick Stewart (available here on DVD). A little earlier I chronicled the creation of Hamlet, which again was made with the RSC, and which had Greg as director and David Tennant in the main role (you can buy the DVD here). Both productions were financed by BBC and WNET13. And long before either, and before blogging too, with my colleague Seb Grant (who sadly is currently off on another production), in 1999 I produced a television version of another Macbeth, also with the RSC, also directed by Greg, but financed in that case by Channel 4 (go here for the DVD).

Like everyone I have talked with, I am thrilled that the RSC has just chosen Greg as its new Artistic Director. I am thrilled for the company and I am thrilled for him. I am convinced he’ll do great things for the RSC – and indeed for Shakespeare, as he suggests in this short video interview (he will only begin to outlin his detailed plans later this year, and does not take over formally until September):

Just at the moment, however, Greg has a stage production of Julius Caesar to put on and a film version of the same to direct for television. Initial introductions dealt with first thing on Monday, Greg leads the cast in a half hour or so of games to begin to get everyone working together (with others, I make my excuses and seek out a coffee). Then we regroup in the circle, and he starts to explore the ideas behind this new production.

Greg explains something of the historical context of 1599, which is the date for which we have documented performances of the play. He quotes from the famous diary entry by Thomas Platte, a Swiss doctor, who recorded:

On the 21st of September, after dinner, at about two o’clock, I went with my party across the water; in the straw-thatched house we saw the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius Caesar, very pleasingly performed, with approximately fifteen characters.

The ‘straw-thatched house’ was the new Globe theatre, for the opening of which on 12 June 1599 Julius Caesar may have been written. Greg sketches something of the unstable politics of the year, when the Earl of Essex returned from Ireland and burst in on Queen Elizabeth at her toilette, a shocking breach of etiquette for which she never forgave him. Essex’s amateurish attempted ‘rebellion’ against the queen came two years later, but the idea of the overthrow of tyrants was very much part of politics of the moment. We are referred by Greg to James Shapiro’s wonderful 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare for more details (and this is a reference to which we will most definitely return). And Greg stresses how Shakespeare keeps open the question or not of whether Brutus and his co-conspirators are right to assassinate Caesar.

Costume design for Caesar by Michael Vale

Most compellingly, Greg talks about his decision to set Julius Caesar in a more or less contemporary context in Africa, and he details his ideas about the text as ‘Shakespeare’s Africa play’, (outlined in a quote that we reproduced at greater length in an earlier post):

One of the inspirations behind setting Julius Caesar in Africa was discovering the Robben Island Shakespeare and that Nelson Mandela had chosen to autograph lines from the play, asserting that it spoke in a particular way to his continent. It also struck me that there must be some reason why Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, had translated the play into Swahili. The actor John Kani put it most succinctly when he told me that Julius Caesarwas quite simply ‘Shakespeare’s Africa play’.

For further background to the stage production, you can find the cast and key creatives listed here; and go here for recently posted images by production designer Michael Vale of the stage set model and initial costume designs – his first sketch for Caesar is reproducd above.

On each of our screen versions of Shakespeare before now, we have had the luxury of working with an achieved production that has been a success on the stage. We have transplanted this to a location and filmed a television adaptation using the techniques of contemporary single-camera filming. (This is quite distinct from the multiple-camera ‘theatre capture’ work of NTLive and Digital Theatre.)

The plan for Julius Caesar, imposed partly by the necessities of scheduling, is different. From 23 April for a fortnight we will film around five sixths of the play on location before the production goes onto the stage. As before, we will work with the full RSC cast, with the costumes and with what we might think of as the essence of the stage version. As before, Greg will direct the film. But the cast will have had the benefit of only four weeks of rehearsals.

We also intend to mix this location filming with a number of the play’s ‘public’ scenes shot in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon. Our thinking at present is that we will try hard to find an alternative ‘look’ for the theatre scenes, so that these will not have the rather static conventional quality of most theatre filming. We also have a brutal post-production schedule, because the theatre filming will be on 2 June and we have to deliver the final version of the film to the BBC on 29 June. Oh, and we have only around half of the budget that we enjoyed on Hamlet and Macbeth (and neither of those was exactly lavish in their funding).

So where are we in our process? We have a location, a highly distinctive and really quite special space in north London – but, no, I’m not going (yet) to tell you where it is. We have a Director of Photography (Steve Lawes) and we have our Editor (Trevor Waite, who worked on the first Macbeth, and who edited Rupert Goold’s Macbeth; Rupert also got him to edit Richard II, a television Shakespeare film that is not ‘one of ours’ but about which we are immensely curious).

This week we have been assembling other key members of the crew, including Kate Cook who has joined as Associate Producer. Since Monday, we have been filling other crew positions, reviewing the budget, negotiating the final details of contracts with the BBC and the RSC, and thinking quite a lot about pigeon shit (a topic to which we will most certainly return in future posts).

I hav also been girding my loins to get back to blogging. It will not have escaped the attention of regular readers (if we have any left by now) that my posts in recent weeks have been, well, sporadic. It’s been busy, not only with preparations for Julius Caesar but also with the filming of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (out total now is 146). Incidentally, you may also have seen that we have just released on DVD a recording of Being Shakespeare, Simon Callow’s tour de force one-man performance of Jonathan Bate’s script.

Cranking up for Julius Caesar will, I intend, get me back to regular postings, at least from now through the end of the main shoot in early May. I’ll try to offer some insight into how a Shakespeare play is filmed for television, I’ll explore elements of the play and its earlier adaptations for the cinema and television, and when we are actually shooting I’ll tell you what we have for lunch each day. I’ll be honest about how things are going but – inevitably – I’ll also be positive and discreet. So this isn’t the place to come for scuttlebutt and scandal.

Now it’s Friday. I am back in rehearsal room for a full read-through of the play. Greg has made moderate cuts to the full text (I work from the edition published by The Arden Shakespeare), and the hope is that it will run at just about two hours fifteen minutes (it is one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays). The cast re-group in a smaller circle than earlier in the week, and stage management and others sit on chairs beyond this inner ring.

From ‘Hence! home, you idle creatures, get you home!’ to ‘Let’s away, to part the glories of this happy day’, for 137 minutes we sit enraptured. Mostly the cast stay seated, sometimes reading from their scripts, often speaking the words they have already learned. At moments they stand and step into the circle, clasping the hands of friends and of enemies. The worlds of ancient Rome and modern Africa come alive. We follow the action and the arguments, the plotting and the playing out of the consequences. This is going to be good.

Image: RSC press photo by Ellie Kurttz of the Julius Caesar company on the first day of rehearsals. Your humble scribe had left the building by the time the picture was taken.


  1. Helene says:

    Hi, John,

    Welcome back to your blog! A captivating one today. I look forward to reading your daily (or, at least, a few times a week)musings on the filming of this play. I learned so much about what occurs behind the scenes from your “Hamlet” and “Macbeth” blogs and hope to take in even more with this one.

    I hope, too, that you offer up comparisons, when the need arises, between filming “Julius Caesar” and your experiences with “Hamlet” and “Macbeth,” sort of a, “With ‘Macbeth,’ we did it this way; now we’re doing it another way, and for such-and-such a reason.”

    I’ll also enjoy hearing all about your lavish lunches and even the pigeon poop, too, but, hopefully, not in the same sentence!

    I don’t know if we’ll ever get to see this production in the US; hopefully, you can pique David Horn’s interest. So as much information you can provide would be appreciated.

    Thank you, good luck, and most of all, enjoy the ride.

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