Julius Caesar: Political thriller in a modern African state

Producer

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.

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.

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.

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