After an impressive 2016 season at the RSC celebrating 400 years of Shakespeare, they are continuing to triumph with their Rome Season, where they will be staging Shakespeare’s most political and bloody thrillers inspired by ancient Rome.
It couldn’t be a more relevant time to be staging such political plays, I spoke to James Corrigan who is in the midst of rehearsing for Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra.
In Julius Caesar he will be playing Mark Antony – Caesar’s right hand man, then in Antony and Cleopatra he will take on the role of Agrippa. “Mark Antony is one of the greatest generals, but he also has a bit of a reputation of being a bit of a womaniser, alcoholic and party boy. Which leads Brutus and Cassius to underestimating him after assassinating Caeser, as they debate whether or not they should assassinate Antony too. Ultimately, they think he is a bit of an idiot and not really a threat, but they soon realise they were wrong,” James explained.
In the sequel, James plays Agrippa who he describes as: “He’s much younger, but a great roman general who is a very noble, kind soul and Caesar’s war advisor.” Interestingly, by not playing Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, he gets to work with, and witness the character progression.
“Antony Byrne is playing the older Mark Antony, so you get to see this journey. It’s great to watch Tony take what I have done, and what he has read, to create his character of Mark Antony. You can see boths shows in a day, and I think it would be great to watch it like that,” said James. In approaching the role, James mentioned he did a fair bit of research: “I’ve read many books, but to be honest Shakespeare’s writing is so strong, it does the work for me.”
It has been an intense rehearsal period for James, as he only just finished performing in the RSC’s Two Noble Kinsmen, so after rehearsals for the Rome Season in London, he would drive straight up to Stratford-Upon-Avon to perform.
For productions predominately based on power, they are incredibly timely plays to be performing. “I did lots of reading on rhetoric, which is something you would have been taught in Shakespeare’s day,” James said. “I’ve watched a lot of Obama speeches, who I guess is our modern-day great.”
“There are a lot of parallels between Mark Antony and Donald Trump,” James told me. “As they both construct the bent narrative that wins the heart of the people, regardless of whether or not what they have said are true. They connect on an emotional level, and it is interesting learning about it.”
As it is a highly political time, Shakespeare’s plays fit excellently into today’s world. “Literally everyone who is doing a play at the moment is talking about Donald Trump,” James said. “I think now is the best time to do it because of everything going on in the world – it is a crazy mad time.”
“To do a play about what happens when old white men have the reins and proceed to lie and manipulate the masses. With the backdrop of trump and brexit, I can’t think of a better time to be doing this play.”
He explained: “So much of what we have been doing is about what is going on, we have had people like Mary Beard come in to talk to us, and people who are experts in rhetoric and politics – it is amazing.”
Although James is playing two different roles in each play, they are both from similar backgrounds. “They both have a decent upbringing and education, which would have put them in the upper classes of Rome. However, Mark Antony is forced a hand that makes him grow up pretty quickly, and he is very vengeful and headstrong, whereas Agrippa is very noble although he knows his place,” he said.
Excited to be working with the RSC again, James has performed with the company numerous times. “The beauty of working with the RSC, is that you get to work with different directors that are all amazing in their own right,” said James. “With Antony and Cleopatra, it is very freeing and fluid, and people are constantly throwing random things in there to keep it fresh in order to discover every day. Whereas with Julius Caeser, it is very serious and focused. But you learn from each director and bring that into each rehearsal room.”
“It is very interesting, you can really feel the presence of the lack of female voice in Julius Caesar compared to strength of one of the strongest women in history’s voice, in Antony and Cleopatra.”
James’ love for Shakespeare came to him much later than most actors. Whilst studying at Oxford University, his friend asked him to be in a play, which turned out to be Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. “I think it is Shakespeare’s greatest play, because it is like the original rom com,” he explained. “But we did Shakespeare, in the style of The Factory Theatre Company. The idea is that you know the script and nothing else, you don’t even know where you are doing it or who you will be playing. There is no set, no props, no costume, the audience are encouraged to bring anything they own to add to the play.
So if you’re doing Hamlet or something, you don’t have the swords or weapons for the big fight, people won’t bring two swords to the performance, so what you do is improvise. You use things like umbrellas, but you don’t pretend that they’re swords, you use them for their own use. So they are sort of motifs, like opening an umberella over somebody’s head is the thing that kills them. So it was a really playful improvised introduction to Shakespeare with a load of now lifelong friends.”
Now he is a complete Shakespeare convert, he absolutely adores working with the RSC. “It is the greatest company in the world to work for, I’d always wanted to work there and I’m sure lots of actors do because of it’s history. But more than that, it is one of the last places where you can actually do rep which means you get to play several parts at once. It attracts the greatest directors, designers and stage managers, so you are working with the best and learning from the best,” he said.
Julius Caesar and Antony & Cleopatra perform in repertoire at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon from 3 March. Box Office: www.rsc.org.uk, 01789 403493.