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INTERVIEW: Atri Banerjee’s Julius Caesar at the RSC is not your standard white-men-in-togas production. He tells Gill Sutherland about his influences and innovative theatre-making

Who were your influences growing up and how did you come down the route of theatre?

I grew up all over the world. My mum and dad are Indian but I was born in Oxford. I lived in Italy for many years where I got really into films when I was about 12, before moving back to England when I was about 14.

I decided I wanted to be a film director and joined my school’s drama society. I wrote a play when I was 15 with two friends which was an adaptation of Macbeth set in 1950s Hollywood called Big Mac. We took it to the Edinburgh Fringe and it all went on from there.

Atri Banerjee, director of the new RSC production of Julius Caesar. Photo: Mark Williamson. (63243186)
Atri Banerjee, director of the new RSC production of Julius Caesar. Photo: Mark Williamson. (63243186)

Your love of Shakespeare started early…

Shakespeare has been a massive influence for me ever since I was a teenager and I’d come to Stratford from my home in Oxford to see shows here at the RSC when I was about 16. I did English at uni and then I did a masters in medieval and renaissance literature at Cambridge. I did lots of shows with the student drama society, including Shakespeare, which we took on tour to places like Japan, Europe and America.

Once I finished university I didn’t know whether I wanted to be a professional director or not so I got a job as the press assistant at the National Theatre where I met lots of amazing directors, actors and writers. One director recommended I apply for a masters doing directing at Birkbeck and I did a placement at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester.

Are your parents arty?

They are not, they are both academics. My dad is a professor of economics at Birmingham and my mum trained as an art historian but now she’s an editor of a legal journal.

So neither of them are theatre people per se but they always installed in me a strong love of arts and culture from an early age. Growing up in Florence is obviously one of the cultural capitals of the world. My grandmother when she was younger was an actor in India in the 1960s. So it’s sort of skipped a generation. She’s larger than life.

Julius Caesar. Photos: Marc Brenner (63265102)
Julius Caesar. Photos: Marc Brenner (63265102)

You’ve had a very cosmopolitan upbringing does that feed into everything you do?

I guess I’ve always been very proudly an international citizen. Someone who can draw on lots of different backgrounds and cultural landscapes to inform my work and my life [Atri speaks a number of languages, including Bengali and Italian].

I’ve always been determined to make sure my work has a broad appeal to people across nations and generations.

I’m very proud of my upbringing because my parents are both Indian I don’t necessarily identify as a British-Asian person - although obviously I am. I always try to champion the nuances and subtleties of people’s identities and experiences. To some extent all the theatre I do is an interrogation of identity in greater and lesser degrees.

Is this production of Julius Caesar in keeping with your body of work so far?

This is my first professional Shakespeare. My other recent shows include KES at the Bolton Octagon; Glass Menagerie at the Royal Exchange; and Britannicus at the Lyric Hammersmith - all three of those are classic plays that we upended and made new again. I think Julius Caesar definitely fits into that body of work.

Caesar is about what do you do when the world seems broken and grief and loss and gaining and starting again and forgiveness. So that definitely is in the scheme of themes I am interested in and does follow that sort of body of work and it links to my interest in Shakespeare which I’ve had since a very young age.

Obviously having female actors playing Cassius and Brutus – and a black actor as well – immediately you are switching the narrative around. What does it do here?

I think it’s a couple of things. It does take it away from a macho perception of the play. There’s 48 characters in the play and only two are women. Automatically when you’re doing this play in a modern context, of course you could do a play with only two women in, but I think it’s not necessarily in line with the politics of the day and it’s not in line with theatre today and female equality.

I think the risk when you have Brutus and Cassius as men, is that you don’t necessarily get the same effect of two people trying to change the world because they both fit into the same system as the one that already exists. Having Brutus as a black woman and Cassius as a white woman invites you to think of the intersectionality of that relationship.

Julius Caesar. Photos: Marc Brenner (63265084)
Julius Caesar. Photos: Marc Brenner (63265084)

You mentioned the infamous recent Just Stop Oil tomato soup protest in the programme – can you expand on that?

When we were auditioning two young women threw the tomato soup at the Van Gogh painting at the National Gallery, and regardless of how one may feel about that action I was kind of amazed by the intensity of the debate about it. I’m not necessarily linking Brutus and Cassius to those women but we talk a lot about burning the world down and starting again but my question here is what is the actual cost of that? Having them as women just invites you to see the power dynamic in a new way. As much as we are thinking about femininity we are also thinking about masculinity as well.

Caesar and Anthony are being played by men but they are not necessarily what you might expect in terms of masculinity – it’s not military.

It’s asking us what it means when women take up space in a way that men have been entitled to all the time. I’m all too conscious of my place in that. I’m not interested in making a comment necessarily, I hope audiences take away what they want.

JC is quite a cold play, are you doing anything to warm up the play?

Yeah definitely. For me the reason it often feels cold is in contemporary productions – you have the productions of men in togas or productions that are set in Westminster or the White House, and Caesar is often presented as a fascist dictator like a Mussolini. We’ve brought the characters closer to us in that they are regular people, but still with authority. What the play offers is a bit different because he is of course a popularist and a man of the people but there is a version of him where he is a more socialist model of leadership.

The play starts off with this group of people who are about to commit this act and then it broadens its scope to encompass the whole world. There’s so much language in the play about fates and superstition and prophecy. We wanted it to feel like the war is something that has the whole world in cataclysm or on the brink of apocalypse. There’s so much language of clocks and time in the play which hopefully takes it into a space that makes it feel a bit more cosmic and epic than just people stabbing each other on stage the whole time.

Atri Banerjee, director of the new RSC production of Julius Caesar. Photo: Mark Williamson. (63243180)
Atri Banerjee, director of the new RSC production of Julius Caesar. Photo: Mark Williamson. (63243180)

Instead of blood you have an oily substance. Is that part of that vision?

Absolutely, climate change is there. I think we live in a context where the various crisis that the world has gone through over the last couple of years – whether that’s the pandemic or war in Ukraine, and the climate in the background of all that. The question I am interested in, not just on an artistic but also personal level, is what resources do we have to survive on? Who do we cling to in times of crisis?

Having things like the black blood instead of red is a way of taking it into metaphor rather than literalism. Sometimes I see a play with pints of blood and I never fully believe it. It’s a way of creating a version of the play that feels a bit stylised but I hope won’t feel alienating to audiences.

There’s been a really mixed reaction to the show with some loving it and others preferring a more traditional approach. Does the audience’s reaction affect you, do you feel exposed?

Of course, I am a vulnerable human being as the rest of us are so it does feel exposing but I also feel really proud to share it. You need an audience to investigate where the story is landing and where it is not. I had an an incredible few days [in previews] of sitting in the audience and watching and listening and understanding. It’s been really gratifying, particularly with younger audiences.

I heard one teenager coming out after a show saying it was the best Shakespeare he’s ever seen. Where you can’t please everyone it feels like a huge but wonderful responsibility.

Of course, with critics you want it to be reviewed well and appreciated because it means more people come. At the end of the day I’m really proud of it. Even some of the more traditional viewers are enjoying it – I heard one older lady say “I wasn’t sure about it at the beginning but at the end I was really moved”. That’s all you want really if you can take people on a journey with you.

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