Guildford Shakespeare Company takes on the political world with Julius Caesar
17:38 16 February 2017
As Guildford Shakespeare Company prepare to tackle the world of political thriller with their adaption of Julius Caesar, Matthew Williams meets the group’s founders to discuss their 10th anniversary year, how their now famous Spiegeltent almost got stuck in the mud and some hugely exciting plans for Guildford
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine February 2017
First things first, what can we expect from your upcoming version of Julius Caesar?
Sarah: Rome. America. Britain. Syria. We inhabit a world where the cult of personality rules and people value security and strength over community and humanity. This Caesar will reflect our current world of western politics, from Brexit and Trump to the right wing in France and the crisis in Aleppo. It’s a fast-paced political thriller, drawing on the West Wing, House of Cards and the rolling news cycle of events across the world.
Matt: It’s always a privilege to work with Shakespeare and one of the incredible things about the plays is how surprisingly modern they are. If ever there was a time for this play it’s now, hence our modern context setting. BUT, as ever, we’ll still be true to Shakespeare’s original words and not be translating anything. We’re adamant that Shakespeare does not have to be dumbed-down to be understood. The setting may be modern, but the words and their intentions are timeless. In fact, Shakespeare’s play, written in 1599, was incredibly contemporary with its political and religious themes; while characters refer to doublets, clocks and nightcaps - not togas, sundials or sandals!
Having met up with Surrey Life at the start of your 10th anniversary year in 2016, did everything go to plan?!
Sarah: It was wonderful. We set out not to over-stretch ourselves, so that we could enjoy it. I’m not sure we achieved the not overstretching but we certainly enjoyed it! For me, the highlight has to be Grimm’s Fairy Tales in the Spiegeltent (a mobile dance hall that started life in the Low Countries - alternatively known as a Mirror Tent). Everything, from the venue to the script to the music and cast, just all came together. It was magical. Then there was our fantastic gala night at Guildford Cathedral, which brought together so many people who have been part of our journey.
Matt: Crumbs, there have been so many wonderful moments! Starting, of course, with announcing the fabulous Brian Blessed as our honorary patron in January! It has been a real treat this year to look back on our journey since 2006. Putting together the Muse of Fire exhibition for Guildford House Gallery was such a joy - though seeing the last 10 years of your life documented in a series of rooms is quite something!
How about surprises…?
Sarah: There are always surprises! Digging the 40 ton truck that carried our Spiegeltent out of the mud on its arrival made my heart beat a little faster than I wanted it to. It had come all the way from Belgium and got stuck a few hundred metres outside the venue. The fear of having got so close and failing was imminent but we got there. A positive surprise was finding our current “home” within five months of launching our search, thanks to the support of Guildford Borough Council. It was a vital step forward in finding our own permanent space.
Matt: The speed with which GSC has grown, even in just the last 12 months. The temporary home provides us with office space, a costume and props store and small rehearsal room. It has enabled us to employ another two full-time members of staff, bring our rehearsals under the same roof and increase the in-house classes the education department delivers.
Congratulations are due for raising nearly £40,000 towards your £75,000 New Beginnings fundraising target. How much impact has this had already and what are your plans to push the campaign over the line?
Sarah: We’re so grateful to our supporters for helping us get so far. We are currently looking for a piece of land on which to build our very own Spiegeltent! People fell in love with last summer’s one, and it is rather reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Globe. The £40,000 raised enables us to employ an architect to help us find the land and create a feasibility study, which in turn enables us to start writing to trusts and foundations for grants.
Matt: We’ll still continue to use our unique ‘found’ spaces around the area, as we have become known for, but the Spiegeltent will give us new options and permanent physical presence. We also want it to be a resource and asset for Guildford and the wider area.
Until that semi-permanent home comes to fruition, do you have any worries about being able to follow up on the Spiegeltent? Locations don’t get much more unique than that…
Sarah: This is always a worry, to a certain extent- for me anyway. I’m quite competitive. If someone says “how are you going to beat that?” then I start planning. At the time of choosing the Mirror Tent, we actually thought it might seem too conventional because of its theatrical structure. But we wanted it for its enchanting quality - an ideal match for Grimms. On reflection, of course, it had a huge impact. I think the key is to ensure that we find the right space for the right story regardless of whether we are pushing boundaries or not. That said, there is a space we are desperate to use this summer.. whether we get permission or not is another matter.
Matt: In addition, I would say that for me it is also the audiences themselves, and their responses, that help make the ‘next show’ as unique. Introducing them to stories they think they know, surprising them with ones they did or taking them to a whole new world is incredibly satisfying. I remember last year, after The Comedy of Errors, one of the audience members asked why we updated the dialogue. When we told them we didn’t they couldn’t believe Shakespeare was so easy to understand!
Presumably 2017 is looking as hectic as ever? What else should we be looking out for…
Sarah: The Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be our summer comedies, while we are working on a new version of The Legend of King Arthur for the autumn.
Matt: We’ll also be continuing our Shakespeare’s Birthday Bash in April with a staged reading of Henry VIII - or All Is True, as it was known in Shakespeare’s day - another Sonnet Walk Weekend and our Young Company’s first public performance.
Guildford Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar takes place at Holy Trinity Church, Guildford from Saturday February 4 to Saturday February 25 (no performances on Sundays). Tickets: adults (concessions available), £25; children (under 16), £16.50; family (two full, two children), £80. Visit guildford-shakespeare-company.co.uk for more information.