For 7th Magpies Theatre Company, “the play is always the point of departure.” Dramaturg Ash Rowbin explains how it will be devising around Shakespeare’s original text Julius Caesar, in line with the company’s vision for a collaborative way of working with its actors. “It’s not the finished article, which is how a lot of companies in Britain treat plays; they take the text as it is and realise it. I do think we have this thing about staging things very literally. For us, it’s about taking this play and seeing what we can do with it metaphorically: taking it out of its original context and transporting it to another.” In short, to take a play about autocracy and approach it democratically.
But how do you take a 500-year-old play and make it relevant now? Director Charlton O’Connor explains that, “we’re using Julius Caesar to explore the clashes between the people in power now and our disaffected youth. There are a lot of things people aren’t happy about in the world today, especially our generation; there’s a lack of opportunities, a kind of silencing in art, and we want to use Julius Caesar to explore what if we actually said, ‘no, we’re not going to take this, we’re going to change it’.”
In this unconventional production, “the first half of the play remains pretty true to Julius Caesar – apart from the setting which will be more conceptualised.” Rowbin explains in more depth, “we’ll be exploring the overthrow of power. The subject matter is still relevant; look at what’s going on in Syria, Egypt – there’s never a final revolution, revolution is ongoing. Violence breeds violence. So one of the questions we’d like to raise is, is history just going to repeat itself?”
The company will be using the second act to explore this question in more depth, Rowbin reflects that, “it’s worth saying that we’re completely dissolving the play.” Shakespeare may be considered one of the greatest playwrights who ever lived, but both Rowbin and O’Connor feel, “Julius Caesar has a spectacular first act, it explores lots of really interesting questions. But once Caesar’s dead, and the two sides have been established in what essentially becomes a civil war, then I think it loses its way. It just stops asking questions.” So it’s not for want of reverence for Shakespeare that they approach his work in this way, O’Connor simply believes that, “when the text no longer serves the questions that we’re trying to raise, then why shouldn’t we find other ways of doing that?”
To facilitate this, 7th Magpies Theatre Company will be devising the second half. When I speak to them, nothing has been written down yet: “we’re going to take the company of actors, other sources, texts, and create something new out of that,” Rowbin explains. At the centre of this is the thought that, “theatre needs to be open to change. What this project started as has now matured. I think speaking of an end product can be a dangerous thing, because we don’t want it to be that.”
Talk of theatre as a product grates on Rowbin, too: “we don’t want this production to be it, we’d rather have a German system where productions play in rep and we’re staging them for years”. It leads the conversation down a very political route in which Rowbin admits, “I think every play that I ever make will be designed to destroy capitalism and show it for what it is. Capitalism is a form of oppression, a silent oppression. People are placated with products, made very comfortable, and we’re not always aware of how oppressed we are.”
So in line with this thought, the world which this production is set in “isn’t that far from the world we’re living in now”. This made finding a venue which would aid the telling of their story essential. “We probably spent a solid two-three months trying to find a location. It’s basically a gutted out church. There’s still a lot of religious people in the world, but there is a significant lack of faith, a lack of community – anything we can hold on to that’s dear to us. More people probably think about their Facebook page than reading or politics or actually talking. It’s such a vain world we’re obsessed with and I wanted to stage it somewhere that could potentially capture that idea of a fallen world. We don’t build anything like that anymore, anything we build lasts us a day.” Rowbin adds, “It’s interesting to compare what we worship now and worship in the play, in a venue which was formerly a place of worship. I like those connotations.”
I question Rowbin further about his opinion as a writer, on reimagining classical writing for our contemporary world, “It’s almost about not being afraid to destroy Shakespeare. I hate hearing playwrights say ‘I could never write a play as good as that’, because if that’s what you think, why are you even bothering? Modesty is the quality of the lukewarm, said Sartre, you ought to have some sort of belief in yourself. You should aspire to the heights of Shakespeare if you’re going to achieve anything, shouldn’t you?” It’s an inspiring way to think, and explains why this company has the balls to tackle the bard for its first production.
Whilst interviewing O’Connor and Rowbin, a lot of our discussion leads us to talk about politics, and it’s easy to get a sense that these theatre-makers feel an affinity with the characters in Julius Caesar. They tell me about meeting director Katie Mitchell whilst they were in Germany. Apparently the short but sweet words of advice she had for them were: “Never compromise”. “I think we’ve taken that on 110%,” O’Connor reflects, and it’s pretty plain to see. These two seem determined to start a revolution of their own in British theatre.
The 7th Magpies Theatre Company will perform its version of Julius Caesar on 27 and 28 June at Dilston Grove, Southwark Park. For more information and tickets, visit the company’s website.