A mirror image of modern issues

10th October 1997 at 01:00
Birmingham Rep has set Julius Caesar in the Thirties. But it also reflects the 1990s, as Ann FitzGerald reports

A director's first dil- emma with Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, is when and where to set the play, according to Anthony Clark who is staging the current production for Birmingham Rep.

"To play it in Roman times distances it to merely a slice of ancient history. A modern setting warps the play - how do you account for the Tribunes or Soothsayer? - and often distracts audiences while they hunt for parallels with contemporary figures."

For Clark, one of the interesting features of the play has been its role in history, different ages using it to reflect their own political concerns.

This started with the Elizabethans, for whom, he feels, it must have had resonances for the later years of the Queen's reign, with their anxiety and manoevrings over the succession. In the 19th century, he believes, it bolstered the public school ethos and the idea of a "ruling class".

Clark's own favoured period for this production is the 1930s - the slump, unemployment, economic crisis, "very similar" he says, "to the play's own, post-civil war period in Rome when there was huge unemployment, scarcity of food and social unrest."

So there is a "1930s wash" to the production, particularly denoted by the costumes, but the actors play characters producing the history play themselves, stepping into togas to do so, and using it as a chance to debate the politcal issues which it highlights.

Patrick Connellan's set is an abstract amalgam of an arena, a debating chamber, an auditorium and an operating theatre - where the nation's political health is being investigated.

We of the 1990s are reflected in a huge mirror on the set, while the set itself, when the curtain rises, is a mirror image of our auditorium. Our knowledge of the story is reflected in the character of the Soothsayer, who in 1990s dress, has the wisdom of hindsight.

For students coming to the play for the first time, Clark hopes these multi-layered parallels will stimulate discussion of the political debate at the heart of the play - how do we wish to be governed?

He also hopes that the complexities of the main characters, with their contemporary resonances, will emerge: private and public loyalty conflicting in Brutus, pertinent to current discussion on how far a man's private "honour" (or lack of it) affects his public role; Cassius, the shrewd and able strategist who is driven by private ambition.

"The charisma of Mark Antony", thinks Clark, "hides a much more wily and complex man than the public dream of" - a Roman spin-doctor who knows just how to manipulate the masses?

Julius Caesar runs at Birmingham Rep from October 24 to November 22. School party and student concessions. Education programme: teachers' workshop with director, 4.30pm November 4. Matinee days with morning workshops with members of the cast: October 30, November 6, 13, 18, 20 at 10.30am. Teachers' notes and in-school workshops available in November. Tel: O121 236 6771.

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