Set play

15th September 2000 at 01:00
JULIUS CAESAR. The Young Vic, London.

David Lan, directing Julius Caesar for his opening production as artistic director of the Young Vic, says this play reminds you of Shakespeare's "otherness". "We think he's one of us and then discover that he's one of them". He means that Shakespeare's world view was very different from ours, encompassing ghosts, witches, soothsayers and magic. The notion of magic, of an upset in nature, is, he says central to the play.

"Somewhere at the heart of the play - as in others by Shakespeare - is a fascination with transformation." Sometimes it is a perfectly natural process, sometimes it is magic. "Here there is a transformation of the whole world when there is a threat to social order, but it is ambiguous as to whether it is caused by the Brutus and Cassius plot against Caesar or by Caesar himself threatening the Republic. It is quite casually done - there is a fire storm, people in flames, an earthquake, lions whelping in the streets. People report these things, but you have to work out how you are going to take them seriously."

The other kind of magic in the play is, says Lan, that of rhetoric. "Mark Antony transforms the crowd with his words." Words have the power to change things. During rehearsals of this section, "the moment came to mind after Diana's death when there was a national desire that the Queen should cry and say that she loved her. The public had a fascination with authentic emotion and here the crowd want to be convinced that Mark Antony is for real."

Lan says there are signs that Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar at speed, perhaps forthe opening of the newly built Globe. "It is very sketchy. There is no scene between Brutus and Caesar, yet it is vital that that relationship is real" - although Brutus struggles, of course, to separate his feelings for Caesar the man from his anxiety about Caesar the potential tyrant. "Brutus thinks and thinks and decides to do the wrong thing: he kills Caesar and causes his own death and the destruction of the Republic. In his speech 'It must be by his death...' he is persuading himself that it is the right thing to do, although he hasn't really any evidence to go on.

"Shakespeare seems to have been working out how to do the shift of sympathy from one character to another ," says Lan. He notes that Brutus makes his speech to the crowd in prose, Antony in verse "and Antony wins. It gives you 20 per cent extra for nothing, something you can't pin down.

"The psychological perceptions are of course fantastic, especially when you think he was writing at speed, cribbing most of the time (from his source, North's translation of Plutarch) and making brilliant, apparently random, choices about what to leave out."

Observing that Shakespeare seems to have assumed his actors would wear contemporary dress, Lan has decided that his cast too will be in modern rehearsal dress. The murder of Cinna the poet is always especially horrible when people who look like the audience turn into a mob. Lan observes that the recent attacks on people who merely share a name with a paedophile exactly parallel this incident. Cinna is simply unlucky in his name.

Heather Neill

Tickets: 020 7633 0133

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