Director Atri Banerjee talks about his production of Julius Ceasar, which visits several northern venues from April, ending at Salford's Lowry in June
Atri Banerjee will be well known to Manchester audiences as the director of Royal Exchange productions of Hobson's Choice and The Glass Menagerie, as well as Kes at the Bolton Octagon.
"I got into directing when I was still at school," he explained. "I wrote a version of Macbeth with two of my friends, set in 1950s Hollywood and called Big Mac. I didn’t really know I wanted to be a director as a teenager, but I saw lots of shows. I went to university to study English, then did a masters and did a lot of shows with my student drama society, including quite a bit of Shakespeare.
"When I left university I still didn’t know if I wanted to be a director, so I got a job as a press assistant at the National Theatre, where I met lots of amazing creatives and artists, and decided that directing was the thing I wanted to do."
The second year of a masters in directing saw him on placement at the Royal Exchange, where he stayed for a couple of years beyond his degree: "So Julius Caesar coming to the North West is really special to me," he admits.
As well as the Exchange and Bolton shows, Atri has since worked at the Bush Theatre (on Harm, in which was Kelly Gough, who plays Cassius in the forthcoming Shakespeare) and Britannicus at the Lyric Hammersmith.
Working at the Royal Shakespeare Company was also something Atri wanted to do: "I come from Oxford, so the RSC was somewhere I used to visit as a teenager. I saw productions like Rupert Goold’s Merchant of Venice and Maria Aberg’s As You Like It. I directed a community production for the RSC at The Marlowe in Canterbury in 2021 called ERROR, ERROR, ERROR. Over half the company was made up of people affiliated with Canterbury Umbrella – adults with mental health or learning disabilities and those isolated in the community. It was an extraordinary experience."
The chance to direct Julius Caesar came through Open Hire, a scheme set up to encourage a more transparent application process within the theatre industry, opening jobs to more people and stop it feeling like a closed shop.
"I studied Julius Caesar at university, but it wasn’t a ShakespeareI knew too well until I got round to applying for the role of director. We know it’s a political play, and it's often done in a way that reflects the age it’s being performed in. Shakespeare himself was writing the play when Queen Elizabeth was coming to the end of her reign: there had been plots against her and there was a question of who would succeed her. So even in Shakespeare’s day he was using this Roman story to talk about what happens when there is a possible power vacuum.
"So I wanted to make a production that felt like it could speak about today. A series of crises have happened – particularly over the last seven years – from Brexit to Trump, the war in Ukraine, the pandemic, events that have revealed massive rifts between class, gender, race, disability, across every intersection of power. I was asking myself, when you feel like the world is in a bad place, what steps do you take to make the world a better place? What are the limits of peaceful activism? How do we react, for example, to the likes of Extinction Rebellion, or the two young women who threw tomato soup at the Van Gogh painting?
"I’m also very aware it’s easy to put Julius Caesar in a Donald Trump wig and cast him as the baddie. But I’m more interested in creating a production that makes an audience feel the conspirators were both totally right to kill Caesar, and also totally wrong to kill him. I wanted to capture that ambivalence that is central to what Shakespeare has written What appealed to me about directing it is that it feels like a play that can think about these huge moral grey areas we exist in, without trying to draw any easy conclusions.
"In terms of how the production looks, it’s not set in Westminster, but neither is it set in ancient Rome. It draws on elements of the modern and the ancient world to create our own world.
"I’m also very keen to convey a sense of the supernatural, and time running out. The play has ghosts, omens and prophecies. Characters are always worried about time running out. That relates to the climate crisis. It feels to me that Caesar, like the world we live in today, is a play that’s set in a place of emergency."
The show cast has 48 named characters, 46 of whom are men. So we have cast it to redress the gender imbalance. So it’s about half-and-half, men and women, and one non-binary actor.
"Brutus and Cassius as cast as women. But it’s not just about gender. The production will make people think about their reactions to power when it is held by people who aren’t part of the white male patriarchy we still live in."
The clash between Cassius and Brutus, and the way they’re being portrayed makes for a really rich experience," says Atri: "Kelly’s Cassius could be read as someone who has had to fit into some sort of model of masculinity throughout her whole life, whereas Thalissa’s Brutus might be seen as someone much more comfortable in her femininity as a way of establishing leadership."
The show also includes a community chorus: :"This is a play about a nation in crisis," Atri explains. "It just makes sense to me that this production, which is going on tour, will include real people from those areas. "So alongside the professional acting company we have found a way of integrating the communities from all the areas the show is playing. It’s not unusual for productions of Julius Caesar to have a chorus who come on to be the citizens of Rome and say 'Read the will’ and then you never see them again.
"I wanted to include them to amplify the supernatural, apocalyptic terror within the play. They’ll be singing, using their voices and will be present on stage for significant parts of the play.
"They will be something akin to the chorus you’d see in a Greek tragedy, watching the action. Premonitions of death, really. Figures who embody death in ways that goes beyond these characters..."
Atri Banerjee's production of Julius Caesar for the RSC on tour will visit the Alhambra, Bradford (May 2-6); the Blackpool Grand (May 16-20) and York Theatre Royal (June 13-17) before arriving at the Lowry from June 20-24)