Phyllida Lloyd has recently conducted a revolutionary experiment with Shakespeare. Billed as the “Shakespeare Trilogy”, Lloyd has taken Julius Caesar, Henry IV, and The Tempest and spun them with a diverse, all-female cast (starring Harriet Walter) in a bid to address issues relating to the representation of women in the theatre. More than this, in these productions the cast assume the roles of female prisoners staging the plays within the walls of an institution; Lloyd uses this added layer in order to explore wider structural societal problems and creates a unique way of staging these classic plays.
The “Shakespeare Trilogy” has connected with a myriad of actresses that fuel the drive and energy of the performance, and this is now transferring to the screen with the release of cinematic iteration of Julius Caesar. Lloyd’s previous film works include Mama Mia (2008) and The Iron Lady (2011), but this is a new challenge. The stage production of Julius Caesar strived to bring an authentic stage experience to a wider, younger, and more disparate audience than ever before (through the Donmar’s excellent “Young and Free” scheme), and the cinematic release is an extension of it, and one that manages to imbue the play with the communality usually felt with theatrical performance.
We here at culturised had a chance to discuss this project with Phyllida just prior to the film’s premiere at The Edinburgh International Film Festival where she gave us a fascinating insight into a multitude of different aspects that went into both the theatrical production and its filmic adaptation. Whether it was discussing the role of the audience, the intricacies of introducing a camera into the company’s performances, or the “unbelievable” experience of working with the York Prisoner’s Project, Lloyd gave us a real insight into her approach to this innovative project.
When adapting a stage play to the big screen, how do you approach the distinctions between the two mediums and attempt to reconcile them?
I’m ambivalent. I’ve always been extremely skeptical about how you make a live capture of a theatre show anything other than a lesser experience for that screen audience. There are various contributing factors, the average age of the audience for one, but I have to say, first of all, I also think it’s great that people outside the metropolis can get to see work that the taxpayer is paying for. I think it’s brilliant, that you can go and people can go in Exeter or Durham or wherever it is and see something from the National Theatre. But it’s no surprise that the audience for it is very old. And I think that’s a lot to do with the problems of shooting it: you can’t actually, in a proscenium arch, theatre get the camera where you want it to be. Or give it the movement you would want to give it. So all through this last five years, I’ve been nudged to agree to allow these productions to go out live. And I’ve always blocked it and resisted it but there’s come a point where two things have sort of, not changed my thinking about sending it out live because we haven’t done that, but I decided that we want to extend the viewership of this material.
We want to take these films into schools and prisons –I don’t know whether you know this but we were sponsored to give away a quarter of our tickets free to under-25-year-olds in London. And we had such a great fanbase amongst a young audience for this, both here and in America, so we really want to extend that offer. One thing is to make it accessible for our schools and the other is to take the material into prisons and we want to present these, not just on a whole “stick it on your laptop” way, but to give people a big screen experience with great sound, where the actors would travel and introduce the films and perhaps present workshops and lead people into the process. We want to extend the remit of them.
I also couldn’t bear not to put Harriet Walter’s performance particularly – but not just Harriet, Martina, the whole company – onto screen. One crucial thing sort of played into my hands with the cinematic release was being able to cover this in a way that I hope takes the audience somewhere they can’t get to in the theatre. And I know that’s true because even the actors, having seen it, have been like “my god, I’ve had no idea that was really going on on the inside of it” and that’s to do with it being performed in the round. Because what happened was, though there were people who said that this could be like a complete suicide mission, if you are deciding to cover it, you’ve got two performances: you can afford to cover two performances. If you don’t want the cameras in shot, you’re going to have to shoot from one end one night and thus the other end the second night. So you’re actually making a movie in two takes. Because if you’re this end on one night and this actor screws up that night, the next night, you’re going to be over their shoulder. So how are you going to cover it?
I was thinking, “don’t worry, they’re not going to screw up, because god knows we’re on this, it’s not like we started rehearsing this yesterday”. So I thought I could trust them not just to not screw up but also to manage the continuity that was required because we are literally cutting between nights and so I had two performances shot from different ends and then we had about ten days of, where we did four or five hours each day of handheld, GoPro. I used GoPros sometimes in the performance as well but I shot some of it myself during performances, you know, outside the gates constantly trying to remind the audience that we’re in a prison. But to try and bring some of the energy in the handheld stuff, the energy of the performance and the energy you’d kind of expect if you were putting this story on screen. You know, it’s not going to be very stately, it’s going to have a sort of raw quality. So the intimacy, the energy, and also trying to use the audience so sometimes they fall away into darkness. And sometimes they loom. And you’ll feel, whenever Caesar is there, they loom a little bit then they loom more, and finally all the lights come up and they’re in the Parliament, and you’ve got four-hundred unpaid extras there.
That is a particularly interesting shot, the behind the shoulder during Caesar’s assassination has a frantic nature to it and very much implicates the audience into that act of murder.
Which was very much the whole premise of performing it in the round: you are literally witnesses to the event. In Shakespeare the wonder of it in the round is that you’re asked to be, one minute you are, witness to a conspiracy, then you’re part of the parliament, then you may feel like the army, and we used this in all the plays of the trilogy. In our final play, The Tempest, the audience are all given torches and they have to light a particular scene and they feel like “oh my god” they have sort of entered into some sort of cosmic happening, some existential thing in which you get your torch from under your seat and Prospero says to you “elves, hello elves” and you’re all there with your torches. So that whole communal experience that Shakespeare gives you, which is hard to get on-screen.
There’s definitely a visible effort there, with the GoPros, things like that, they really bring that out. Especially for the audience of the screen version, using that is one of those movements in trying to involve the cinematic audience. It’s not the immediate audience, it’s the audience of the immediate audience, there’s definitely that disconnect there so do you use these interesting devices to try and bring that down?
Yes, and also what I’m excited about is if we can get a young audience to go to the cinema and see this, and we’ve got a proportion of our cinemas who are offering five pound tickets to under-25-year-olds. And if we can get that young audience to watch this, they’re going to see that in the theatre audience there were quite a lot of young people watching in the front rows. So it’s like, you’re not watching an art form and you think “oh this is, you know, this might be cool but everyone is the audience seems to be like old fogies”, you can actually see there are children sitting there and younger people. And so in some ways it’s trying to create an excitement about this stuff, and with the diversity of the cast and the fact that you’re hearing a range of voices, it’s not just posh white guys, it’s a range.
And finally, what was the experience like working with the York Prisoners’ Project when staging the Shakespeare Trilogy?
Unbelievable. Rachel Conlon who runs that programme is extraordinary, and none of us had personally worked in prisons. But what she’s done to bring two communities together: a community of students with a community of prisoners and to the benefit of both sides. And she helped host, we had a live link every Tuesday night in rehearsals into prison, an audio link. So we would sit there and read a scene and we’d say to the prisoners “what’s going on? You know, help us out here”. And they’d say “well, you know, as far as we can see, you know, the Earl of Northumberland is absolutely enraged and he’s turning his anger into, he’s turning his guilt and his anger into revenge. You know, we convert our guilt into violence and revenge, that’s what happens.” And we realised these people who appeared to be so voiceless, so powerless had, in a way, lived literally Shakespearean lives. They understood loss, betrayal, murder, banishment, honour, these themes. And they were all kind of sharing them with us. And we were able to say to them “well, you know, we tried that gag you offered us up for Falstaff in Brooklyn last week, it went down a storm.” And they’d be like “oh my god, we can’t even believe our voices are being heard in London let alone in New York.” And so they felt there were more possibilities for them in the future because they had been listened to and we were leaning so much from them and I think that’s something that Rachel’s project, it’s not just sort of “oh we go in a bring learning and rehabilitation to the prisoners.” It’s like “who are we, who are you, what can we learn from each other?”
Jackie Clune, who plays the title role in Julius Caesar was also recently interviewed by culturised about the cinematic adaptation of the play. The interview can be found here.
Julius Caesar will be in cinemas across the UK and Ireland from 12th July until the 17th August 2017. For more information, see here.