Ten years after Samuel West quit as artistic director of Sheffield Theatres he is back to play Brutus in Julius Caesar at the Crucible.
He left bitterly disappointed that the theatre management didn’t take up his idea of putting on productions elsewhere while the Crucible was closed for refurbishment but his long absence has not been because of any grudge, he insists.
“But having the complications of two self-employed people with a young child there aren’t many theatres where I could have entertained an offer like this. There are so many vagaries involved but the nice thing about this is my partner’s parents live in Chesterfield so I am able to stay with them and it makes the whole thing much easier.”
That is the playwright Laura Wade, of course. “She grew up in Sheffield then they moved out to Derbyshire and she went to Lady Manners but she is a Sheffield lass ultimately,” he points out. “She thinks of herself as one and her first play was performed here.”
The choice of Julius Caesar, “was a very happy confluence of things,” he says. “I have never been in the play and it is particularly timely to revive it given the state of the world and certain leaders within it.”
It is no coincidence that several theatres are putting on productions. “To draw attention to some very obvious parallels you’ve got a senate which is largely posh and landowning pretending that it is in touch with the people and being fought over by rival groups, one of which is pretending to be populist but is basically just another group of rival landowners wondering what to do about a man they say is a tyrant.
“There is one big difference in that Brutus is through and through a republican. He doesn’t like the idea of kingship or emperorship and he doesn’t know that he is right at the end of the republic, it doesn’t have long to go. Octavius is going to be the first emperor. So we are at the end of a great society which is collapsing and a lot of people are thinking that might be happening now and are looking for political and other ways to make sense of it.
“Also we are in Rome and in the senate at least is a space where you can debate and feel safe and a little out of touch,” he continues. “We were talking in rehearsal that the homeless in Washington can walk up to the White House and effectively look through the windows at the political elite having their cappuccinos but outside the DC of Washington we have an enormous amount of poverty. People speaking on behalf of an underclass they have never even met.”
The fact that it coincides with a General Election gives the production added piquancy. “Theresa May announced the election at 11.15 on Tuesday, April 18, which was exactly the time our rehearsals started – to the minute. And the date of the election is two days before we close,” he notes.
“The debate is what do we do with our tyrants? Is it better to stab them or not? We’ve been having rather a lot of elections lately. And that’s the nature of democracy, people saying, ‘oh do I really have to vote again?’, and that’s part of Julius Caesar as well.”
The role of Brutus attracted him as well. “I have also played Hamlet and there are some similarities. Brutus is a more embryonic Hamlet, he’s not as deep or well developed, he is clearly an early version. And I think not as attractive a character, there’s lots of things wrong with him, but one doesn’t always want to play characters that are attractive, at least I don’t. They are not always the most interesting people.
“I do think what Brutus represents is complexity, he’s not a man of the soundbite. He does come up with a good few fridge magnets – ‘There is a tide in the affairs of men/ Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune’. I mean you can quote him at times but he does believe that abstract ideas and principles are important and he can argue them – sometimes slightly out of touch, a bit priggish at times – but you might say that politicians in the past were much more like him.
“And then someone like Mark Antony comes along who doesn’t claim to be particularly intelligent or good at speeches. Whereas Brutus has offered them an idea he offers them money and holidays. And guess which one they respond to. So that might be the kind of fight we are having now.”
After leaving Sheffield Samuel West made his West End directorial debut on Dealer’s Choice and has also directed Waste at the Almeida, Close the Coalhouse Door for Northern Stage and After Electra at the Tricycle Theatre. He resumed his acting career with Betrayal at the Donmar, and has been busy ever since including revivals of A Number in which he had appeared opposite his father, Timothy West, in the Crucible Studio, in Uncle Vanya in the West End and the Chichester Festival Theatre’s Young Chekhov Season. Television credits include The Hollow Crown, Eternal Law and as Frank Edwards in Mr Selfridge. He will be seen later this year in the movies, Darkest Hour, as Sir Anthony Eden, and On Chesil Beach based on the book by Ian McEwan.
Julius Caesar continues at the Crucible Theatre until June 10.
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