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David Calder interview - 'My Julius Caesar is a Caesar worth killing'
Following the inaugural production Young Marx at his new venture, the Bridge Theatre, Nicholas Hytner is demonstrating the versatility of his new space by directing a promenade staging of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Members of the audience will be places in the thick of the action, from welcoming Caesar on his triumphant return to Rome, to being in the midst of the civil war.
David Calder plays the title character, alongside Ben Whishaw’s Brutus, Michelle Fairley’s Cassius and David Morrissey’s Mark Antony. We spoke to Calder about what to expect from the exciting production.
This is the second production in Nick Hytner’s new space the Bridge Theatre, and a promenade staging. What does that involve?
All of the auditorium seats have been stripped out. Parts of the floor lift up and down and make different shapes around the auditorium surrounded by about 400 people who have paid to stand, and they become part of the action. The result is we’ve ended up with a two-hour play which goes at the speed of a train.
How involved are the audience?
They’re in the same movie, and it is like being in a movie. It’s all set in the modern world, and it’s a story of attempted political coups, assassinations leading to a devastating civil war. Every aspect of that is very easy to reference in the modern world. But it’s not Trump. First of all, Trump’s a loud-mouth loser, Caesar is not. In this production, he’s a man worthy of being assassinated.
You’ve said before that Caesar needs to be a character “worth killing”. What do you mean by that?
It doesn’t mean that you have to play Caesar as a pantomime baddie, but this is a man whose understanding of the world is such that his own military achievements and status elevated him narcissistically to this place where his assumption is that not only is he the first amongst equals, but it’s God given. The Republican side – the Senators, Brutus, Cassius and the rest of them – see that as a threat to their Republic. He looks like a man who could very easily tumble into not just a dictatorship, but becoming an emperor, and destroying the whole of the political system. That’s not because he’s Machiavellian and he’s setting out to do that, but it’s just the road he’s on. That’s what I mean by “a Caesar worth killing”, because he could pull it off. He has that power and stature he needs in order to be pulled down.
Have you ever played the character before?
This is the first time, I’ve never really been that interested. We’ve got an edited version of the play, but in the full-length version, Caesar’s assassination takes place about a third of the way through, and the civil war side of the play is drawn out by Shakespeare. I think you end up forgetting it is called Julius Caesar, and you forget about the character. We’ve got the physical presence of the dead Caesar walking the battlefield, and I hope he remains front and centre throughout the whole piece.
You’ve worked with Nick Hytner a few times before, how did that start?
He asked me to do a few things when he was at the RSC, but it didn’t just work out with timings and such. When he was at the National, I heard he was doing Hamlet and I thought I’d make a plug and asked my agent to enquire about playing Claudius. Nick came back with the most extraordinary idea: he suggested I played Polonius. I’d never in a month of Sundays thought of playing Polonius. He’s always played like a bumbling idiot and I’ve never been that interested because of that. I told Nick that I’d have to play it how it’s really written, in that he’s the second in line to the kingdom, a very powerful man. Nick said: “That’s why I want you to play it”. According to people who saw it, it released the part completely and became a significant role, rather than a comedy role.
How did you playing his Caesar come about, then?
A year ago, getting all his ducks in place, he asked if I wanted to play Caesar, and I said “yes, I will with you because we’ll be able to do something different”.
And you’ve got some pretty solid cast mates in Ben Whishaw, Michelle Fairley and David Morrissey…
It’s terrific. What is great is that the modernity of the production – it’s firmly placed in today – and the nature of the promenade means a very natural ensemble has arisen. It’s happened organically, rather than imposing the idea of doing an ensemble piece on a group of actors. This has happened because of necessity and because it’s desirable and because it’s fun.
What did you make of the theatre when you first visited?
I was on the board of the Young Vic for 20 years and I was very involved with the rebuild of the theatre. Steve Tompkins was the architect on that, and he also worked on the Cottesloe Theatre at the National. When I walked into the Bridge I was struck by how an extraordinarily combination of those two designs in its own unique space.
With the audience playing a big part in the show, do you worry that certain crowds might not be up for it?
The play starts with a rock concert, which is the celebration of the Roman holiday. It’s the triumph of Caesar over Pompey. The audience are placed immediately in that festival atmosphere, and they go from there. They don’t need to be worked up. We have a tremendous populous cheer recorded on tape, but we hardly need it. They join in, they’re in it. They’re there, and their energy keeps you buoyant.
Julius Caesar Tickets are available now.
Photography credit Manuel Harlan