INTERVIEW: Alex Waldmann on playing Brutus in Julius Caesar at the RSC

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Alex Waldmann, inset, and as Brutus, with Anthony Ofoegbu who plays Trebonius in the RSC’s Julius Caesar

ALEX Waldmann is currently playing Brutus in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar, which opens tonight, Thursday. The 37-year-old actor was last here on stage in 2012/13 playing Bertram in All’s Well That Ends Well and Orlando in As You Like It. He lives in London with his wife, the director Amelia Sears, and their two young children. Here he tells Gill Sutherland about playing the role and wanting to change the world…

You’re still in preview and, it’s the day after the Ides of March [the date of the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC] is all boding well?!

“Yes! We’ve just been off for ten days while they put Antony and Cleopatra in, as the plays are cross-cast. It’s been very busy backstage. They’re ambitious shows with a big cast — and there’s a lot of blood!”

You are just doing Julius Caesar while a lot of the cast are also in Antony and Cleopatra, does that make you feel a bit on the edge of the frenetic family?

“In 2012/13 I was in all three of the shows doing Shakespeare, from morning to night, for six months, which was amazing and thrilling. But it’s quite hard now I’ve got a got two young daughters — Emma is five and Olive is two. But it feels the right time, and I’m fortunate I’ve got these breaks as I can go back to London, and they will come up here for Easter and the summer holidays. I love it here it feels like home but I have to make it work for the family.

“The thing with the RSC is they work you really hard, but you get paid properly and get the chance to be in these amazing shows, in this great theatre, in this amazing town, and it’s incredibly rewarding, and the thing is it beats real work!”

Looking at the production photos this Julius Caesar appears a classic-looking period production, but bright and bold. Tell us about it.

“With Trump coming into power Julius Caesar is going to be very popular over the next year or so. There’s productions in Bristol, Sheffield, Nic Hytner’s new space in London, and there’s also a big one in Central Park in New York, so it obviously feels like the play for today.

“But I think we’ll probably be the only production that won’t be modern dress. It’s interesting because however modern you try and make it we won’t ever be able to make it quite as crazy or as mad as what is happening in the world, and over in America. So even if you had someone painted orange in a yellow wig, it would be hard to keep up with the way the world’s changing.

“Even 2,000 years ago men dressed in togas dealing with exactly the same issues. There’s no need to hit the audience over the head, the relevancies will speak. At the same time Angus [Jackson, the director] is keen that this is not a ‘heritage production’. Yes we’re in togas, but the lighting is very bright and modern, and the music is an electronic earthy mix so it doesn’t feel old fashioned. Rather than trying to be a historical recreation of Rome, we’ve created our own world that feels theatrical and bold, but there’s a contemporary flavour to the way we stand and communicate with each other.”

There must have been a lot of Trump-dominated political discussions in the rehearsal room?

“It is extraordinary how many things feel current and relevant for today, not only the Trump thing. Here’s someone who could potentially do enormous danger to our world — would it be justified before Trump became President for someone to have taken him out?

“Brutus thinks a tyrannical king is a threat to the republic. The mob don’t agree but Brutus thinks he knows best because he believes he is intellectually superior, and certainly today we have politicians who think they know what is best for our lives.

“You’ve also got the regime change thing with Tony Blair and Iraq — you can’t get passed it: Brutus talks about ‘what do I do?’ before the assassination, it is a preemptive strike. Caesar is not acting like a full-blown dictator yet, but in case he does down the line, we need to act now. It’s like Blair did with the supposed presence of weapons of mass destruction.

“As with Iraq, Brutus and his conspirators didn’t plan for afterwards. The dictator is dead but we don’t have a clue what we are going to do next and there’s this almighty power vacuum and the mob are looking for a leader…

“It’s also about the power of rhetoric. We associate Obama with this great beautiful delivery and amazing turns of phrase, but in terms of appealing to your audience Trump is no less of a capable orator. Trump is the master phrase-maker. ‘Make America great again’ means nothing, but it appeals to the people. So Brutus is Obama, and Trump is Mark Antony.

“The conspirators have to deal with the enormity of what they’ve done; they scrabble about they wanted to preserve the republic but they ended up bringing about the empire.”

Do you identify with Brutus? Is it a particularly demanding role?

“It’s been a tough call for me because, as Angus identified, I’m probably more comfortable as an actor being on my front foot, but with Brutus in our production has to be stoic and honourable, because that’s how people see him.

“So I said to Angus I can’t play stoic but I can play someone desperately trying to be stoic. What I’m working towards is someone who is genuinely tortured, conflicted about what the right thing to do is, who literally can’t sleep at night, like Obama having to decide whether to go into Syria, he couldn’t sleep. If you’re a politician in a position of responsibility the weight is overwhelming.”

Does he do the wrong thing?

“But what is the alternative? That Caesar becomes king and can abuse his power? Is inaction better? That’s always the dilemma. Would you assassinate Hitler aged six? But his life could have gone differently.”

You’ve been tipped for great things and have had some great roles, do you consider yourself successful, is this acting lark a struggle?

“It’s always relative. You have to stand back and think; actually if you looked back ten years and saw that you had the honour to play lead roles at the RSC and the number of actors around the world, who would kill to be in that position.

“I think for me I’ve been a ‘rising star’ for about 15 years! But I haven’t risen, as long as I don’t start falling that’s fine. Since having kids my ambition for it has changed a bit — as long as I’m getting work that I enjoy and my kids are safe and happy, and that I can provide for them, that’s more important. Although any actor will always want more.”

What other Shakespeare roles would you like to do?

“It changes, but I always wanted to play Romeo. I always had an idea in my mind of how that should be played, but might be getting too old at 37! I almost want to get that out of my system before I’m 40. Prince Hal, and I never used to want to but I do kind of want to do my Hamlet now. I might have missed my chance, it was so brilliant here last year.”

Did you always want to be an actor, and what was your first role?

“I always wanted to be a drummer actually. We lived in America and I played the Gingerbread Boy in a production for the National Youth Theatre, and I ended up weeing myself onstage, which would be enough to put anyone off, but I got the trauma out of the way, got over it. It wasn’t my dream to come to the RSC, I wasn’t this big Shakespeare fan but I’ve become one, and have committed to the brilliance of Shakespeare’s language and making it come alive, making it feel accessible and contemporary, and epic. So it wasn’t my passion as a kid, but I’m glad it’s worked out this way.”

The Rome season seems very prescient, what do you hope the audience will get from it?

“It has occurred to me with all that is happening in the world, is it enough to be in a play that makes people think, or are we at such a crisis point in the world that it is not enough? What can we do to actually stop the world going down the tubes? I don’t know. My agent says until I work that out you may as well be in a play.

“You don’t just want to make people think you want to change the world, you want them to go out and march and protest. Who knows what will be happening when we are at the Barbican in six months’ time? The argument that we are ‘preaching to the liberal elite’ damns the liberal elite! With all the cuts to arts funding, this play, which is the death of liberalism, is prescient and important. I hope people enjoy it, but we can change things too.”

Julius Caesar is at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 9th September, before transferring to the Barbican, London. Book tickets at www.rsc.org.uk