Atri Banerjee’s visceral production which comes to the end of a UK tour with a series of dates at The Lowry from Tuesday confronts modern problems in modern ways. Which makes the fact that a play written over 400 years ago is so relevant even more remarkable.
“It raises the whole question of what do you do when you decide ‘enough is enough’,” said Thalissa. “If you are feeling powerless or that democracy has failed, what steps would you take? That’s what’s facing all the characters in this play.
“It’s fascinating when you look at the time Shakespeare wrote it. There had been many plays about Julius Caesar before but they invariably ended when he was murdered.
“Shakespeare deliberately put this moment at the centre of the play as he was interested in the aftermath; what happens when you don’t have a plan? This was so relevant at the time as Elizabeth I was childless, there was no heir and no clear succession plan.
“Plus the country was facing massive shortages and economic hardship; there was major unrest.”
In the ensuing 400 years there have been countless examples of governments, regimes and countries lurching into chaos following unrest and the lack of a clear succession plan. The current political situation both in this country and further afield has led to many feeling disenfranchised and isolated.
“This play is so relevant,” said Thalissa.
There is always a risk in bringing a totally new approach to Shakespeare of traditionalists condemning the production from the outset for daring to alter revered work.
But this version doesn’t hold back. There isn’t a toga in sight. Brutus and Cassius are played by Thalissa and Kelly Gough, the characters’ pronouns changed to “she” and “her”, the accents are diverse and regional.
“I love the fact that this production is provoking a debate,” said Thalissa. “some people might think it’s not right that we’re ‘messing with history’ or wonder ‘what’s all this dancing malarky about?’ – choreography plays a major part in the play – whereas others will realise it is something new.
“But that’s what Shakespeare did in his time. In his version of Julius Caesar he writes of chiming bells but they didn’t have chiming bells in Roman times like that.
“It’s about introducing new things and modernising the concept and hopefully making it even more interesting.”
For those unfamiliar with the play Rome is in turmoil; the actions of Julius Caesar are increasingly worrying the politicians of the day as shows signs of becoming a despot. Friends Brutus and Cassius become involved in a plot to assassinate Caesar which leads to civil war.
“The relationship between Brutus and Cassius is fascinating,” said Thalissa. “It’s almost a domestic relationship. They are best friends who went to school together. Cassius was the one who would get into fights in playground and Brutus the one who would step in trying to calm things down.
“As they go into politics Cassius is the one who gets angry, inciting violence. Although Brutus is equally worried about the situation, he’s not convinced that violence is the way.”
Although an acclaimed stage actor, Julius Caesar marks Thalissa’s debut with the RSC.
“For a lot of us, it’s our first time with the RSC,” she said. “I think people have a preconceived idea that we’re official Shakespeare doing it the right way, whatever that means.
“We’re just a bunch of people who want to be storytellers.
“I’d always wanted to perform at the RSC but for me the real highlight has been taking the production out on tour.
“It’s an amazing experience; exhausting but amazing.”
Among the many innovations in this production is a community chorus which changes at each venue made up of community leaders, workers and volunteers from the local area.
“We did one show where 150 kids from the local community got to come along and they were up on their seats whooping at the end,” said Thalissa. “It was beautiful to see people so involved and for them to see someone like me perform this part, I had tears in my eyes on stage. People were witnessing themselves up there which was one of the reasons I wanted to do this job in the first place.
“Shakespeare can be hard for an audience, it can be hard to introduce people to but this production really does connect with people on so many levels.”
Julius Caesar, The Lowry, Salford Quays, Tuesday, June 20 to Saturday, June 24. Details from www.thelowry.com