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Julius Caesar: Political thriller in a modern African state

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John Wyver John Wyver | 14:47 UK time, Wednesday, 20 June 2012

On a dismal afternoon at the end of April, as the rain pours down outside, the cast and crew of Julius Caesar huddle in padded jackets around bright electric fires.

We are shooting a film for BBC Four of William Shakespeare's vivid political thriller on which I am the producer.

Cast member looking at large camera on the set of Julius Caesar

Behind the scenes on the set of Julius Caesar

We are camped out in an abandoned and decaying shopping mall in north London.

But when the lamps are switched on and the camera turns over we are transported to the tropical temperatures of a modern African state and to an overheated world of conspiracy, assassination and revenge.

Director Gregory Doran, who later this year takes over as artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, started two years ago to prepare a new stage production of Julius Caesar for the company.

As he worked he was struck by the parallels between Shakespeare's tale of the violent overthrow of a dictator in ancient Rome, including its bloody aftermath, and the history of certain African states since independence.

The events of the unfolding Arab Spring seemed only to enhance the contemporary echoes.

The film, which Greg has also directed (as he did the 2009 BBC film of Hamlet with David Tennant), was shot in the middle of rehearsals for the stage production.

With the same distinguished cast (including Paterson Joseph, Cyril Nri and Jeffery Kissoon) this television production complements the theatre version, which opened earlier this month to hugely enthusiastic reviews.

At the same time the film is a distinctive and original interpretation for the screen, with the spaces of the shopping mall allowing us to create a richly detailed African world and the camera achieving an exceptional intimacy with the motivations and the ideals, the hopes and the fears of Shakespeare's characters.

While respecting the essentials of the stage production the film re-imagines many of the key scenes including the central drama of Caesar's murder.

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Brutus (Paterson Joseph) and Cassius (Cyril Nri) after the assassination of Caesar

On screen this is set on the shopping mall's escalator, where Caesar has paused in what we imagine to be the anonymous architecture beneath the Senate House.

So while this has been opened out as a spectacle for the camera the later appearance of Caesar's ghost before the climactic battle called for the tightest of shots filmed only an inch or so from Brutus' face.

In their very different ways both for me are highlights of the film: exciting and immediate and illustrative of how Shakespeare can still surprise and thrill audiences familiar with the political drama of The West Wing and The Killing.

From its first production in 1938 to the most recent in 1979 the BBC has broadcast eight previous versions of Julius Caesar (making it the most popular of Shakespeare's plays on television).

None however will have made quite such sense as this African setting for Cassius' exultant - and chillingly prophetic - words just after he has plunged his dagger into Caesar's heart:

"How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!"


John Wyver is the producer of Julius Caesar.

Julius Caesar is on Sunday, 24 June at 8pm on BBC Four and will be available on iPlayer until Sunday, 1 July 2012.

Julius Caesar is part of Shakespeare Unlocked and the 2012 Festival.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    I'm very much looking forward to seeing this production. (Paterson Joseph's work impressed me from his "Cheek by Jowl" days.)

  • Comment number 2.

    What a superb production! Thank you, BBC, for letting us see this. Patterson Joseph, Cyril Nri & Ray Fearon were tremendous.

  • Comment number 3.

    OK, I saw this production, the one they televised, live' at RSC Stratford on Avon, at the 7:15pm performance, on 2 June. I was blown away by Ray Fearon's performance and the whole production, it was magnificent. Now, I confess that, if you will allow me to indulge myself, as this blog has very few entries so far, that I will make a further comment when I have caught up with the televised performance on the iPlayer. Julius Caesar was what I studied for O Level, way back in 1979, and I was very lucky in that the previous BBC production of JC was transmitted in the spring of that year. I was even more lucky in that my English Lit teacher at the time, Martin Tyrell (yes, see link below, the very same teacher who taught Benedict Cumberbatch at Harrow - and - I believe he taught Lawrence Fox too - and even possibly Adam Woodyatt) took me into character studies of Antony and Brutus.

    The Cumberbatch/Tyrell link:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b012tnt0

    Now, I was an extraordinary bad pupil, an utter disaster, and I hated Shakespeare
    with utter contempt, as I thought he was a.... well.... er... I was a punk at the time and I just couldn't stand him. Anyway, 33 years later, having paid an awful price for being a rebel (no career), here we are, a performance that I thought was the most extraordinary and powerful Shakespeare play I have yet seen, in my entire life. Yes, I will do a part II to this blog, honest, this play and my life are interwoven. Anyway, I also enjoyed Benedict in the Rattigan Enigma too, and Mr Tyrell does not look like he's aged much either. So, part II of this very personal review later this week!

  • Comment number 4.

    I am never a great fan of direct and rather reductive parallels to modern historical characters, but the African setting works. Even the Winnie Mandela ‘necklacing’ scene manages to shock and portray effectively the horror of mob violence.

    However, what struck me most was the quality of the verse speaking. Rarely have I heard (Mark Rylance aside) this language so clear, direct, simple and honest. The Africa accents and cadence breathe freshness into the language—at times almost mono-syllabic and often rhythmically jolting, with lots of (what seem) inversions of traditional stresses. There is, too, the Baptist Church-like response from the crowd to the great oratory in act 3, which brings the crowd scenes to vivid life. There is more to it than the accents, though.

    This production demonstrates to anyone (regardless of ethnicity) how to communicate Shakespeare’s language: with directness, glass-edged clarity and restraint. Add to that the very great emotional truth of it all, where all sounds emanate and echo from the gut, and we have, I would argue, as fine an ensemble in a Shakespeare production as you are likely to see.

  • Comment number 5.

    Thank you so much for screening this fantastic, magnificent, thoughtful, sensitive, well-acted, brilliantly directed, powerfully produced (superlatives running out ) version of Julius Caesar. I last read parts of it for 'O' level at a girl's grammar school 45 years ago and never realised it's profundity and timeless qualities. Brilliant setting for it which helped combine African politics/post-colonial issues and general macho/male/ testosterone filled styles of social change with brilliant poetry. Bravo shakespeare, the whole cast, RSC , production team and BBC4. I have at last appreciated the depths of the play and so many "quotable quotes". Thouroughly enjoyable and, at last, some TV it seems worth paying the licence for!

  • Comment number 6.

    What a wonderful production this was! Compelling and moving -- by the end I had a lump in my throat. My thanks to all the marvellous cast (with their superb speaking of the Shakespearean language), to the director, the producer -- everyone involved. A truly life-enriching experience.

  • Comment number 7.

    What a treat. Well done BBC4 for providing quality television yet again. We enjoyed this so much that we grabbed some family and made the trip to Stratford on the weekend for the live matinee performance. Fabulous production, the new RSC theatre is magnificent and the performances were super, Cyril Niri in particular.
    I also studied JC for "O" level many moons ago but the play seemed to have no relevance to my world at the time. I was very wrong of course, it's packed full of modern parallels - that's the beauty of Shakespeare. This production really hits home at the present and forces you to think about power, dictatorship, freedom, political manipulation and a whole lot more. RSC at it's best.

  • Comment number 8.

    Many thanks for all of your comments - and for all your enthusiasm.

    Ellieweld, I have to say that, even though I knew the production rather well by that point, when I first saw a full rough cut of the film, there was a distinct lump in my throat as well. I think what Greg and both Paterson Joseph and Simon Manyonda did with the final scene is really moving.

    Earl_of_Passionbec, how interesting that you saw it in the theatre when we were filming - we didn't in fact screen it live that night, but recorded the parts that eventually were edited into the final film.

    Garry Scanlan, I agree that the verse speaking by the whole cast is absolutely exceptional - that's part of what the RSC can deliver so wonderfully well.

    I'm obvioulsy thrilled that you liked it so much, bethisolde, and that it spoke to you so strongly some 45 years after you first read it.

    And, Linda, how interesting that the film prompted you to go to Stratford to see the production live as well. Anyone else who is similarly motivated might like to know that it is about to open in Newcastle and then comes to London in mid-August.

    Thanks again for such a lovely group of comments.

 

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