• Sun. Jun 16th, 2024

Interview with the Director: Julius Caesar

ByFinn Tyson

Mar 24, 2023
Image from Julius Ceaser production

With Julius Caesar’s opening night fast approaching, I managed to get an interview with its director Devki Panchmatia in between the ramping up rehearsal schedule:

Q: What drew you to the setting of this production of Julius Caesar, and what is the setting?

D: The concept emerged very early on, perhaps over a year now, to transpose Julius Caesar onto the setting of the 1950s New York mob. This allowed us to downsize from what the play is best known for, which is as this very political intense spectacle, into a more micro-political familial tragedy. This allows us to work with the aesthetics of the mob and play with how mobsters are perceived in our cultural consciousness. Scorsese has a huge influence on how we see mobsters and has been a big inspiration for that kind of nocturnal world.

Q: So would you say this mafia setting makes the betrayal feel more personal?

D: I think that’s definitely what we’ve been going for. Specifically, I was drawn to the setting because I am obsessed with mobster stories, and it makes the play so personal for Caesar because the relationships in the mob are not like the president or the prime minister and his cabinet, but much more closely resembling a father-son dynamic. What we’ve trying to tap into through that is some Freudian themes and the very primitiveness of killing the father. It has allowed us to really have fun with the emotion of the play.

In many productions, the political element is so huge, so it has been extremely interesting to work that into an even more emotional landscape.

Q: That’s so cool, especially as that familial relationship is a huge theme in many of Shakespeare’s works. What would you say is special about Shakespeare for you?

D: I’ve gotten this question before, and it’s a hard one because it’s such a personal question. The first big role I ever got was when I was very young in A Midsummers Night’s Dream and that was my first introduction to acting and the world of performance and it stuck with me forever. Another reason why is that I write a lot of poetry and connecting with performance on a lyrical level is probably what draws us all to Shakespeare.

Also, he gets people, he understands them. When you look at a lot of the Early Modern Drama, people like Christopher Marlowe, it seems that he’s never met a woman in his life! The women in his plays are just barely existing and are either very pretty or very weird. Whereas Shakespeare understands them more as people and gives them psyches. Portia admittedly is one of the only two female characters in Julius Caesar. But as much as their dialogue is incredibly sparse, we can do really wonderful phycological studies on them, and see what that kind of a world does to a woman. Portia specifically has been so exciting for me, because she’s a perfect example of how deeply Shakespeare can tap into the human psyche.

Q: Would you say that, for such a small part she’s perhaps one of your favourite characters to delve into in this crime world?

D: Oh yeah! My favourite characters are Portia and Cassius. Marina, who is playing Portia, is just dynamite. I remember in one of the rehearsals she brought some of Sylvia Plath’s poems in and performed some of her prose and that’s how we then got to Portia through poetry. Marina’s just excellent at tapping into Shakespeare’s character building and I love Portia as a character.

Q: And has that use of poetry been a technique you’ve used in the rehearsal process?

D: Not as directly as that. But on an indirect level, poetry’s been very involved. For instance, I’ve nicked something from Sam Mendes, because he’s so in touch with how poetic Shakespeare is, a lot of the directions he gave were based off the elements. He would watch a monologue and say “Give me more fire” or “Give me more water, make it more fluid” and I think that’s such an interesting way to tackle the material. So, we’ve been using that in the monologues particularly.

Q: That’s a really interesting method. And can I ask how the poetry has interacted with the accent because the New York accent has that distinctive beat?

D: Definitely and we’ll see how people perceive it on the night. But I’ve always stood by the accent from the beginning. The RSC production where they set Caesar in an unspecified country in Africa gave this alternative take on the poetry with a generalised accent, and that created a very beautiful lyricality in the poetry, driving the iambic pentameter. Something similar has happened with the New York accent. Julia Lisa, who’s a phenomenal actor who plays Mark Antony is also our accent coach, so she’s got that accent down. So, when she performs the famous ‘Friends Romans Countrymen’ speech, we decided that if that speech was a song it’s the word ‘Honourable’ would be its chorus because its repeated a billion times. In the accent it has a ‘awr’ sound, so it transforms the word into a very languid and fluid. That word becomes a vessel for how languid and performative Mark Anthony is as a character, at least for me, and it really taps into so very fun character work and a new rhythm.

But the accent is a funny one. I had a drink with a friend yesterday, and he doesn’t know much about the show, but he’s coming to watch. So, we were talking about it and he stopped, and said “hang on a minute, are you actually doing the whole thing in an accent? You must be joking” And I was like “Yeah” and this had been a big worry for us, as people might just think it’s funny – maybe they will. I think. That’s tough for us because mobsters’ accent and behaviour is so removed from our daily lives. Sometimes we can find these killers actually quite amusing for how larger than life they are.

Q: Certainly, figures like Al Capone spring to mind. You said you had an accent coach, what kind of practice have you done in rehearsals?

D: We have regular warm-ups and the accent warm-up. We worked another coach who formulated a plan for us to follow so that we can almost translate Shakespeare into the New York Accent. So, a lot of work as gone into the accent. But I think that it is really important as a student production that we should delve into Shakespeare in a completely different way. The most important thing about student theatre, for me, is giving it a go! We won’t hit the national theatre mark, but the point is that we’re here to learn and try out loads of things!

Q: Absolutely and have fun! So, is that experimenting one of the reasons why people should come see this play?

D: Absolutely, one hundred percent. But the main reason to come and see is because its been an incredibly collaborative process, we’ve all learnt so many new things from stage combat to accent coaching. This production for me as proved how audacious and ambitious people should be when creating theatre. We’ve been given so much support from the Shakespeare Society and there are so little stakes if it goes wrong which has allowed us to be far more ambitious and have more fun. Hopefully people will like it, but at the end of the day it’s about you and your actors learning together.

Q: Are there any easter eggs the audience should look out for?

D: There are tonnes of references that hopefully people will get. For example, Julius Caesar’s costume, played by the brilliant Francesco Davi was created by a wonderful costume designer and she’s really made a tonne of references to Capone himself, with the white scarf, big furry coat. So that’s one thing to look out for, our costumes are filled with references.

In the first part of the show especially, because there’s a bit of a twist before the second half, but in the first part we make references to every Scorsese film there is because we’re trying to tap into that image of the mob to be able to play with that.

Q Awesome. And just before we finish are, they any people you would like to thank specifically?

D: Yes. I would like to thank my amazing amazing Assistant Director Max Lister, who was there right from the start over a year ago. He’s juts brilliant, the cleverest man I know and I’m very lucky to work with him. I would also like to that the Shakespeare Company for their support and funding, they’ve been great!

Julius Caesar is running from the 1st of March until the 4th of March, find tickets on the Edinburgh University Shakespeare Company’s Instagram.


Image by Henry-Morgan De Witt provided via Press Release