Sheffield Theatres artistic director Robert Hastie’s first production, Julius Caesar, opens at the Crucible next week.
He sees Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy as a political thriller and believes it couldn’t be more timely coinciding with the General Election.
“It’s about the way we choose our leaders and the relationship of people to politicians and how we want to be governed,” he says.
It will have a contemporary setting with characters in business suits rather than togas, and Ben Stones’ design has given the Crucible auditorium the look of a council chamber. “We’re getting away from the idea of painted scenery,” says the designer. “It’s more like a senate. Our city halls these days look like the setting for Danish thrillers.”
A row of seats have been removed enabling the cast to walk among the audience who will thus have the feeling of sitting within the senate.
“The theatre has the same DNA as the Forum,” Hastie suggests.” It’s a place where people get together to discuss things, a safe place to discuss dangerous things. The citizens discuss how they want to be led and we see around the world today how dangerous that is.”
Shakespeare’s are the best plays ever written but they were largely written for menRobert Hastie
“The space means that everyone is on show for it’s important that this was an assassination that didn’t happen in a dark alley.
“They are using real knives. We are teaming up with a local cutler. It has always been my ambition to engage with local craftsmen. And this is a play about a city – one with seven hills, remember. We want it to feel like a living, breathing, debating city.”
The production marks the return of one of his predecessors, Samuel West, for the first time in 10 years to play Brutus alongside one-time Hollywood actor Jonathan Hyde as Caesar and Elliot Cowan as Mark Anthony.
One of the most striking aspects will be a female Cassius in Zoe Waites among a number of gender swaps among characters.
“Shakespeare’s are the best plays ever written but they were largely written for men,” points out Hastie. “In the 21st century it’s right that women are represented. We have to work out how to effect this. This is a play where you can change the gender of the characters.
“It felt important if we are doing a play about a city it should look like the city we are in.
“You should be able to walk in off the street and recognise the world and so that’s why the cast is as diverse as it is outside.”
“One of the challenges of setting it today is that there was a prevalent belief in the supernatural and they took the presence of ghosts and soothsayers as normal. We have embraced this is in a horror movie way and are saying this is something that can happen.”
The end result is not so much a horror movie as a thriller in the manner of House of Cards.
It is interesting that several other theatres have chosen Julius Caesar right now.
“It seems with Shakespeare certain plays acquire a renewed vividness at particular moments in time,” he explains.
“Peter Brook compares them to planets that either swing closer to the earth in its orbit or drift away.
“I see the choice of this as the first play as not so much a statement of intent as an opening gambit. I see myself as being in conversation with the Sheffield audience.
It’s important to refresh the appetite of the audience and their spirit of adventure.”
Julius Caesar starts previewing next Wednesday at the Crucible and runs to June 10.