Diane Page directs Julius Caesar for divisive age of Putin and Johnson as Shakespeare’s Globe heads indoors at York Theatre Royal

Diane Page directing a rehearsal for Shakespeare’s Globe’s touring production of Julius Caesar. Picture: Helen Murray

IN her school days, Diane Page decided Shakespeare was not for her.

And yet, look who is directing the Shakespeare’s Globe touring production of Julius Caesar as it plays York Theatre Royal from tomorrow (10/6/2022).

“Maybe because of the environment I was in – I was at quite an academic school, a comprehensive in New Cross – and I just thought, ‘Shakespeare isn’t for me’,” recalls the Londoner, who studied Shakespeare for her English Literature GCSE. “Being dyslexic made it even more difficult.

“But after I left school, one of the plays I read in my breaks when I worked as an usher in the West End was Julius Caesar and I really loved it. Then I read it again in lockdown and thought, ‘Gosh, this is a really amazing play that I want to direct’, seeing it through a contemporary lens, with some interventions to reflect now, but without changing the text.”

A year’s planning has gone into the production since Diane first took the idea to Shakespeare’s Globe artistic director Michelle Terry.

As attributed to Prime Minister Harold Wilson in a lobby briefing to journalists in 1964, “a week is a long time in politics”, and so the machinations of Shakespeare’s epic tragedy are being played out against a backdrop of the paranoid Vladimir Putin’s Russian invasion of neighbouring Ukraine and the populist but increasingly unpopular Boris Johnson’s night of the half-drawn knives with his splintering Conservative MPs on Monday.

“The links with today resonate through the play, but what really stands out is how characters are constantly reacting out of fear, which feels really interesting when related to our times, when you look at how power works and reflect on contemporary politics,” says Diane, who notes how “the play has these amazing speeches but they haven’t been thought of in that way”.

Page confronts today’s rising tide of regime change through the prism of Shakespeare’s brutal tale of ambition, incursion and revolution in Ancient Rome, where the conspiracy to kill, the public broadcast of cunning rhetoric and a divisive fight for greatness echo down today’s corridors of power.

Cassius and Brutus’s belief that Rome’s leader, Julius Caesar, poses a political threat to their beloved country could be matched by the rhetoric of Tory rebel MPs seeking to justify their motion of No Confidence in leader Boris Johnson (although more likely it is rooted in fearing the loss of their seats and a General Election defeat when seeking an unprecedented fifth successive term in power for the Conservatives).

“That’s something I’ve drawn on, both historically and from now: how society responds to a leader and what people want in a leader,” says Diane. “Particularly what we’ve drawn on is the contrast between the public persona of Julius Caesar and this frightened, paranoid leader in private.

“Tragically, throughout history, we’ve seen this idea of populism [in political leaders] and how long it lasts, and it’s fascinating that it happens again and again and again.

“One of the things we’re asking people as they watch the play now is, ‘what is it that we need to do differently when we’re voting for our leaders. We’re not drawing on any particular era or political figure in regard to Caesar, but when Trump was first happening, you think, ‘this will never happen’, then you think, ‘this might happen’, and then, ‘oh, it’s happened’. For me, part of Brutus’s flaw is to think that everyone will think the same, but history tells you a different story.”

Charlotte Bate as Cassius in a Shakespeare’s Globe performance of Julius Caesar at Morden Hall Park in April. “As I read Julius Caesar in the first lockdown, I thought, ‘I think Cassius and Brutus are women’,” says director Diane Page

Does Diane see parallels between Caesar and Putin? “It’s important to say that though it’s not explicitly written in the play, we do feel that Caesar does rule by imposing fear on others, but at the same time he’s fearful,” she says. “There’s also the paranoia that’s transmitted into the community around him.

“So it did feel like we had an extra responsibility to handle these subjects with sensitivity once Russia invaded Ukraine.”

Diane has cast two women, Charlotte Bate and Anna Crichlow, as Cassius and Brutus respectively. “As I read Julius Caesar in the first lockdown, I thought, ‘I think they’re women’. It was instinctual, in my exploration of power and women in power, so it was a very conscious choice, and casting Brutus as a black woman adds another dimension,” she says.

“In thinking about the theme of power, we’re asking what it means now, how it has transcended through the years, and what it means for women to be in power. If we’re still shocked by that, then we think, ‘well, just how many women are in power?’.”

“We know the play is based on historical events, but it’s been fictionalised by Shakespeare, so I felt we had artistic licence to look at what power means now, and those speeches transfer well to women speaking them.

“Looking at friendship between women brings another dynamic to it, and because Julius Caesar is such a masculine play, it’s interesting to flip it or re-angle it.”

Diane is asking questions, rather than providing answers, in her interpretation of Julius Caesar.  “That’s how I feel about Shakespeare: his plays are so universal, whatever challenges someone may face, but for me, the production has to be about what the play means now, though the words remain exactly the same,” she says.

“It did feel important, with such a masculine play and with what’s happening now, to ask questions about women in power. If a play is about us, then it is for us to think about these questions and to discuss them.”

Roll on tomorrow and Saturday’s performances at York Theatre Royal as Diane’s production moves indoors for the first time after open-air shows at the Globe and on tour. “I’ve written a comprehensive plan for my assistant because I’m now working on another show,” she says.

“It’s going to take some adapting because outdoors we use the yard or where the audience are seated, and indoors there’ll be different logistical needs, but not so many that it’ll become distinct from the outdoor performances.”

Shakespeare’s Globe On Tour presents Julius Caesar, York Theatre Royal, tomorrow, 7.30pm; Saturday, 2.30pm, 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Copyright of The Press, York

Diane Page: Director of Julius Caesar

Who is Diane Page, award-winning theatre director?

Training: MFA in theatre directing, Birkbeck, University of London; BA in theatre and drama studies, first class honours, Birkbeck, University of London.

Award winner: 2021 JMK Award for her production of Statements After An Arrest Under The Immorality Act.

Shakespeare’s Globe work: Assistant director for Bartholomew Fair, 2019; director for Julius Caesar, Globe On Tour, from April 2022.

Theatre as director: Lost And Found, Royal Opera House, London; Statements After An Arrest Under The Immorality Act, Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond; Out West, co-director, Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, London; In Love And Loyalty, also writer, Lyric Hammersmith Theatre.

Theatre as associate director: Ghost Stories, West End and UK tour, playing Grand Opera House, York, in March 2020.

Ghost Stories, on tour at the Grand Opera House, York, in March 2020

Something wicked this way comes…at last as York Shakespeare Project’s delayed Macbeth takes a bewitched cyberpunk turn

Vaulting ambition: Emma Scott in rehearsal for her lead role as Macbeth in York Shakespeare Project’s Macbeth. Picture: John Saunders

THE curse of Macbeth combined with Lockdown 1’s imposition to put a stop to York Shakespeare Project’s Scottish Play just one week before its March 2020 opening.

Rising like the ghost of Banquo, but sure to be better received, Leo Doulton’s resurrected production will run at Theatre@41, Monkgate, from October 26 to 30 as the 37th play in the York charity’s mission to perform all Shakespeare’s known plays in a 20-year span.

Doulton is casting Macbeth into a dystopian cyberpunk future, using a dramatic new staging to bring to life this dark tale of ambition, murder and supernatural forces.

“This production has had an unusually long journey, and I’m grateful to everyone involved for their wonderful creativity and resilience over the years, whether they’re a veteran of the original production or a newcomer,” he says.

Nell Frampton as The Lady in the York Shakespeare Project rehearsal room. Picture: John Saunders

“It would be impossible to present Macbeth in the same way as when we started work on it before the pandemic. We’ve moved from a world where we fear quite specific things to one where we fear more pervasive, invisible ones, such as the pandemic and the climate crisis. 

“Cyberpunk is an exciting genre for Macbeth, allowing us to explore Shakespeare’s ideas of lurking corruption, a disintegrating reality, and the search for some moral certainty. It is a magnificent play, and I look forward to sharing this production at long last.”

YSP secretary Tony Froud says: “We were all disappointed not to see Macbeth take place last year, when we were so close to the finish line, especially after the hard work of Leo and the cast and crew.

“During lockdowns and restrictions on performance, we’ve done our best to stay engaged with our community with online play readings and two successful outdoor productions of Sit Down Sonnets, but we’ve always been planning to return to this play and the resumption of our 20-year mission.

Tony Froud’s Ross, with Emma Scott’s Macbeth, left, and Elizabeth Elsworth’s Duncan, rehearsing a scene for Leo Doulton’s Macbeth production. Picture: John Saunders

“We’re really pleased that Leo and so many of the cast have been able to return, and we can’t wait to share this production with a wider audience.” 

York Shakespeare Project in Macbeth, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, October 26 to 30, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Tickets cost £15; £5 for students, means-tested benefit recipients and under-18s. The October 26 performance is an open dress rehearsal with tickets at £5.

YSP’s plot summary

MACBETH receives a prophecy from a trio of witches that one day he will become king. Torn between duty and the chance of greatness, Macbeth and his devoted wife murder King Duncan and take the throne for themselves. Macbeth slowly turns into a tyrant, as corrupt as the strange witches. Meanwhile, the forces of virtue realise what Macbeth has become and a civil war begins.

Clive Lyons as Banquo in York Shakespeare Project’s Macbeth. Picture: John Saunders

Cast

Macbeth: Emma Scott

The Lady: Nell Frampton

Banquo, Siward: Clive Lyons

Fleance, Donalbain, Son, Young Siward: Meredith Stewart

Macduff: Frank Brogan

Duncan, Lady Macduff, Menteith: Elizabeth Elsworth

Malcolm: Rhiannon Griffiths

Lennox: Andrea Mitchell

Ross: Tony Froud

Angus: Sarah-Jane Strong

First Witch, First Murderer, Doctor: Joy Warner

Second Witch, Second Murderer, Gentlewoman: Diana Wyatt

Third Witch, Third Murderer, Caithness, Seyton: Xandra Logan

That clinches it: Emma Scott’s Macbeth and Nell Frampton’s The Lady embrace. Picture: John Saunders

Creative crew

Director: Leo Doulton

Set and costume designer: Charley Ipsen

Lighting designer: Neil Wood

Sound designer: Jim Paterson

Poster design: Charles Keusters

Company back story

YORK Shakespeare Project (YSP) was established in 2001 with a commitment to perform all of Shakespeare’s known plays in York over 20 years.

Debut production Richard III took place in 2002, since when YSP has staged 35 productions, covering 36 of Shakespeare’s plays. Despite the pandemic-enforced delays, YSP still plans to complete the project in 2022.

For more information, go to: yorkshakespeareproject.org.

Macbeth director Leo Doulton

Coming up at CharlesHutchPress: Director Leo Doulton discusses his dystopian, cyberpunk Macbeth.

REVIEW: The HandleBards in Romeo & Juliet, The Love Season, York Theatre Royal, May 25 and 26 ****

Paul Moss: Bringing out the Johnny Vegas in Romeo in The HandleBards’ Romeo & Juliet. All pictures: Rah Petherbridge

NORMALLY the perma-cycling HandleBards would ride into York as part of a tour de Britain devoted to shaking up Shakespeare.

No sign of an eco-friendly cast pedalling away furiously on the Theatre Royal stage this spring; instead, company founders Paul Moss and Tom Dixon and partner in chaotic irreverence Lucy Green had headed north by train for this one-stop trip into Step 3 Blighty with their “bonkers and unhinged” Romeo & Juliet after 50 dates last year betwixt lockdowns.

They travelled lightly, judging by a set design confined to a clothes rail with rainbow-striped curtaining and bunting to either side. As for props, cycling paraphernalia was to the fore: bells to signify Usain Bolt-fast scene and costume changes; bicycle pumps for killing weaponry and a bike back light for, well, a light, of course.

Pulling faces: Lucy Green as Juliet, teenage tantrums and all, in The HandleBards’ Romeo & Juliet

If you are thinking by now that The HandleBards must be biting their thumb at the teenage rampage of a Shakespeare tragedy, rather than taking it seriously, you would be right. Moss and Dixon were dressed for a Boy’s Own adventure in shorts and long socks, as if awaiting instruction from Baden-Powell; Green was the one who wore the trousers.

Directed by Nel Crouch, they neither kissed by the book, nor did anything by the book, brazenly removing theatre’s fourth wall in the cause of comedy as Moss announced he would be playing Romeo, a perma-drink-in-the-hand Lady Capulet and a little part of Friar John; Green, Juliet obvs, fiery Tybalt, Lord Montague and the other part of Friar John.

And Dixon? Everyone else, from a bewigged, woefully weak-as-his-letter ‘R’ Duke to a Scouse Mercutio; a Rowlandson round-bottomed Nurse to a perpetually on-the-hoof Friar Lawrence.

Mercutio is usually the witty-tongued loose cannon in R&J; so much so, the story goes, that Shakespeare served him his early P45 for scene-stealing. Here, however, we had the Queen Mab speech and “A plague on both your houses” and otherwise a back seat for Mercutio as the humour was spread all around him.

Romeo (Paul Moss), Juliet (Lucy Green) and pretty much everyone else (Tom Dixon)

Moss’s Romeo, in his back-to-front baseball cap, had the hang-dog air of young Johnny Vegas; Green’s Juliet stamped her foot like the teenager she was supposed to be, yet could suddenly find the beauty of her soliloquies before more giggles and teen awkwardness in her first encounters with Romeo on dancefloor and balcony alike.

Props were characters in their own right, whether the balcony worn by Juliet or the explosions of red ribbons to signify each death. Even Juliet’s sleeping potion tasted “like strawberry” and Romeo’s bottle of poison, “not bad actually”.

Socially distanced audience involvement came in the form of direct address to Chris in the front row, a good sport throughout amid such mischief and merry music-making. For never was a story of less woe than this particular Juliet and her Romeo. It would have been a tragedy to have missed out.

York International Shakespeare Festival is ON and you can play your part, but make it snappy! Here’s how…

Masked ball, pandemic style, in Romeo & Juliet: Not exactly kissing by the book in The HandleBards’ irreverent production at York Theatre Royal

TODAY is William Shakespeare’s 457th birthday: the perfect time to reveal what will be happening with this year’s York International Shakespeare Festival in May and how you can play your part.

“Covid, Brexit and all the issues around travel and funding mean that this won’t be the usual ‘YorkShakes’ experience,” says festival organiser Philip Parr, artistic director of Parrabbola.

“Festivals and theatre are facing tricky times, but all is not lost. Undaunted, we’re going ahead and have an exciting programme for you. Our festival may be little, but from May 25 to June 6, we’re fiercely determined to bring some international Shakespeare to York and to share work being made in the city.” 

The festival promises films of exciting international productions; the announcement of a new ongoing collaboration programme with colleagues in Taiwan, and “even some live Shakespeare”, courtesy of cycle-everywhere company The HandleBards’ irreverent Romeo & Juliet at a socially distanced York Theatre Royal on May 25 and 26.

Created by three actors cooped up together during lockdown, fuelled by cabin fever and a determination to forget the tears and the tragedy, the result is “an unhinged and bonkers, laugh-out-loud version of Shakespeare’s story of star-crossed lovers” that also will form part of the Theatre Royal’s Love Season.

“The festival climax will be a new, online filmed production of a fast-paced, pared-back Pericles by York company Riding Lights, and we’re also going to launch the world’s first ever – we think! – collection of all of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, each recorded in a different language or dialect,” says Philip.

“And we want you to be part of the festival too in the form of York Loves Shakespeare, a photographic project for people who live, work or play in York, and who love Shakespeare.”  

Here’s how to be involved: “We want you to propose your favourite line from a Shakespeare play and then we’re going to choose one line from every play (so either 37, 38 or a few more plays),” says Philip.

“If you and your line are selected, we’ll photograph you with that line at a location in York that is relevant, iconic and perhaps personally specific. The results will be presented on Instagram and other social media during the festival and then collected on a webpage – and might perhaps go further!

“It’s a simple commitment and can be done legally and safely under current pandemic rules. You’ll need to go to your venue, but it will be only you and the photographer working together. John Saunders, who is well-known around York, has agreed to take our photographs and we’re grateful to him for being a vital part of the team.”

To take part in this celebration of Shakespeare and York, just email Philip Parr at info@yorkshakes.co.uk and propose your play and your line. “The deadline is May 1, so not much thinking time – t’were well it were done quickly!” both he and Shakespeare advise.

“Once we’ve made our choices, we’ll be back in touch to discuss the how and where and when. We need you! Come and join in,” adds Philip.