There are multiple occasions in life when a time machine would be extremely desirable, not least when research commences on plays set in the past. As an Assistant Director, research both before rehearsals commence and during the process of creating the show is a key part of the job. As a self-confessed book worm, library lover and fan of ‘fun facts’, research is one of my favourite tasks; knuckling down in the British Library or diving into a fresh Amazon delivery to explore times gone by – wonderful! There are however occasions, particularly when the plays are set so far away from the present day, and in our case with Julius Caesar over 2000 years ago (2061 to be precise) that academic articles and television documentaries never quite feel sufficient. The most helpful thing would be to step into a fancy vehicle, zoom back to Ancient Rome and have a wander around, talk to the locals and find out what life was really like in 44BCE.
This is especially the case when the play features people who were actually real, live human beings once: Brutus, Cassius, Julius Caesar, Cicero… Oh how I wish we could have a quick chat over a glass of wine and a plate of grapes and get their version of events. Alas, we’ll probably never know exactly what happened on the Ides of March 44 BCE, and we’ll have to make do with the accounts that have trickled down to us over the centuries.
Everyone has their own ways of getting into ‘the world of the play’, but finding out about the place and time in which it is set and also what was going on in the time and place that the playwright was penning the text is, I find, a very good place to start, particularly when the play deals with real historical events.
Starting from scratch
When the RSC kindly offered me the job on the ROME season, my knowledge of Roman history was patchy at best; little snippets of info which I’d struggle to arrange in chronological order and were definitely dominated by memories of scenes from Gladiator. So I got my hands on a selection of excellent books including Mary Beard’s SPQR, The Roman Republic: A Very Short Introduction, The Penguin Historical Atlas of Rome by Chris Scarre, The Death of Caesar by Barry Strauss and 1599 by James Shapiro. After stocking up on a range of highlighters, and investing in a shiny new notebook, I was ready to begin…
Unsurprisingly, there is a vast amount of information on Rome, its leaders and its empire - the volume can be overwhelming. To avoid total overload when doing research for a show, I zoom in on the things that directly relate to the story that we are going to tell. For example: details about the lives of the characters in our play; information on any references to things/people/places mentioned in the play; context about the day to day lives of the Romans – what they believed in, what they ate and what a Roman household might look like. For Julius Caesar specifically, key questions included:
- What happened in Caesar’s life/career up to the point of the start of our play?
- What was the structure of Roman government like?
- What happened at the festival of Lupercal? (Lupercal is the festival that takes place at the start of the play).
- What did they believe in and why were they sacrificing animals?
using the research
After some serious highlighting, typing up notes, printing and photocopying the research made its way onto the walls of the rehearsal room so that it’s easily accessible when we’re in the middle of rehearsing a scene and someone asks ‘where actually is Phillipi?’ or ‘historically, how long had Calphurnia and Caesar been married?’. Of course Shakespeare’s play is a dramatic retelling of the story of Caesar’s assassination, and not an attempt to accurately portray what happened, but contextual knowledge can be immensely valuable in helping to understand characters’ motives.
Having learnt that after its founding, Rome was ruled by a series of kings, the last of whom was expelled by one of Brutus’ ancestors after Tarquin raped Lucrece, we have a greater appreciation for any mention of Brutus’ ancestors in Julius Caesar, and also an understanding of why the conspirators are apprehensive about Caesar being crowned: there hasn’t been a king of Rome for over 500 years and the monarchy become a hated predecessor of the Republic. This can then feed into the actors’ choices about how they approach certain lines and provide excellent fuel for the dynamics and stakes in this thrillingly tense and dramatic play.