My interest in the history of stage plays on television is, in part, closely linked with my work as a producer – which is what I do when I am not working on the Screen Plays research project. With my company Illuminations and with numerous valued colleagues, since 1998 I have made four adaptations of Shakespeare stage productions for television (Richard II, Hamlet and two Macbeths) as well as two opera films (Gloriana, A Film and The Eternity Man). And now I am just about to embark on a fifth Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, produced like two of the earlier ones with the Royal Shakespeare Company and destined to be seen on BBCFour in the summer.
On the previous productions we have worked with a successful stage show and, after the theatre run, transplanted this to a studio or a location to film the production in the style of single-camera television drama. The idea is to move right away from the multiple camera approach of what is sometimes called ‘theatre capture’ and to make a dynamic version for the screen that retains much of the essence of the original stage show. In some ways, this hybrid approach is eccentric – and it is rare in the history of stage plays on television. We feel, however, that our recent films of Hamlet (Illuminations/RSC/BBC/WNET13/NHK, 2009) with David Tennant and Macbeth (Illuminations/Chichester Festival Theatre/WNT13/BBC, 2010), directed by Rupert Goold and starring Patrick Stewart, demonstrate that this way of working has certain strengths.
On Julius Caesar we are working again with the director Gregory Doran, who has recently been chosen to be the next Artistic Director of the RSC. We made our first Macbeth (Illuminations/RSC/Channel 4, 1999) with Greg – and with Antony Sher and Harriet Walter – back in 1999, which is when we developed many of the ideas that still inform our approach today, and he was also the director of Hamlet. Greg is primarily a director for the theatre, but a key principle of these adaptations is that the stage director also directs the film. This was the case with Deborah Warner on Richard II (Illuminations/BBC/NVC Arts, 1997) and with Rupert Goold on the second Macbeth.
In contrast with the previous productions, the schedule for Julius Caesar means that we are going to film most of the scenes of the play on location during the rehearsal period for the theatre show (which starts previews in Stratford on 28 May). We begin the twelve-day shoot on 23 April in an abandoned shopping mall in north London. We will then complement the scenes filmed then with around one-fifth of the play that we will record in the RSC’s main house at Stratford-upon-Avon just after the opening there.
The intention is to contrast the ‘public’ scenes of the play – the opening and closing, as well as the climactic Forum scene, all of which will be shot in the theatre – with the predominantly ‘private’ scenes (everything else) to be captured on location. In the public scenes the intention is to play with the slippage, which is undoubtedly in Shakespeare’s text, between the on-stage populace of Rome and the audience in the auditorium – when Mark Antony makes his appeal to ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’, he is speaking to the crowd around him and to all those in the theatre – and through our film, we hope, to a much wider audience beyond.
The description of an ‘abandoned shopping mall’ as the setting for the filming may suggest that this production is not a conventional sandals-and-togas staging. Greg has chosen to set the production in a non-specific African country at a time that is more-or-less now. He is working with an all black cast and, while he is keen to avoid any explicit comparisons, there are strong suggestions of the Arab Spring as a backdrop for the assassination of Caesar.
In a recent RSC press release, Greg explains in more detail his ideas for approaching what he calls Shakespeare’s ‘Africa’ play in this way:
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 Caesar was quite simply ‘Shakespeare’s Africa play’.
If you consider the history of the Continent since Independence over the last fifty or sixty years, it has witnessed a series of freedom fighters turned democratically elected Presidents, turned despotic rulers, who have pulled all the power to themselves in one party States. The fear of that tyranny has led to multiple military coups, assassinations and civil wars which continue to ravage the continent. Caesar could be Amin or Bokassa, Mobutu or Mugabe.
My first instinct was to set the play in a non-specific setting sometime in the last half century, definitely sub-Saharan – but of course History overtakes us. One of the urgent questions arising from the Arab Spring last year, was not would they get rid of Gaddafi, but what would replace him. This makes the second half of Julius Caesar, instead of frequently feeling a bit on an anticlimax, suddenly seem urgent and thrilling. Or that is what I hope will happen.
Greg and the cast are coming to the end of the third week of rehearsals – and we are ten days away from the first day of principal photography. I am blogging the production process in detail on the Illuminations blog – and today’s post, ‘Be patient till the last’, includes links to previous ones detailing how we have arrived at this point. If you follow @illuminations on Twitter you will also get the latest news as well as notifications of new posts.
For Screen Plays over the next few weeks, as well as highlighting some of the more detailed blogs at Illuminations, I intend to explore earlier television engagements with the play. The first of these was Dallas Bower’s production in the summer of 1938 which also had a modern-day setting, but in this case in a non-specific military state that might have been Germany or Italy. As Cassius says in the immediate aftermath of the conspirators striking down Caesar:
How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown?