Julius Caesar – Five Minutes with the Set Designer

With Julius Caesar rehearsals well under way, we interviewed the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School Set Designer Sarah Mercade to get an insight into the aesthetic of the show.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your role on Julius Caesar?
My name’s Sarah, I’m the set designer. I’m currently completing the MA in Professional Theatre Design at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and this production is my last major design as part of the course – quite an opportunity! My background is in costume; I worked as a designer and supervisor for 4 years before making the decision to return to training and make the leap into set design, something I’ve always wanted to do. My first set design as part of the course was for the Wardrobe Theatre – the text demanded something minimal, and it was very much on a fringe budget, so I’m thrilled to have been given the opportunity to design something on a very different scale at the Bristol Old Vic.

What has inspired your set design?
We wanted the space to feel contemporary, but also to retain the sense of weight, scale and drama of Ancient Rome. I looked at the modernist designs of Edward Gordon Craig and Apier as inspiration, particularly in terms of how these bold sets create potential for dramatic lighting, which I’m really excited to see come to life in our production in the hands of our brilliant lighting designer Paul Pyant. I also did a lot of research into contemporary public spaces, as well as parliaments across the world to ground the design in reality. It was really fascinating to learn about the design of different parliaments and how certain seating configurations are more conducive to either democracy or dictatorship.

What was the most challenging part of your set design?
It’s amazing to design for a stage like the Bristol Old Vic, which has so much history and character, but that definitely throws up its own challenges! The building is inherently asymmetric, and the shape of the auditorium, though beautiful, is quite a challenge in terms of sight lines. You have a vast stage to play with, and the temptation is to use the whole depth, but not everyone in the audience will benefit from any design going on upstage, so the challenge is to use the space effectively and frame the action in such a way that no one misses any key moments.

What is it like working with Director Simon Dormandy?
Simon has a lot of energy and exciting ideas, and his knowledge of the play is immense! He came to the process with a very clear sense that he wanted the production to take place in Italy in an absolutely contemporary political world. The design period was quite brief so this framework was very helpful to have as a starting point, as there are infinite directions you can go in with Shakespeare. We went through quite a few incarnations of the design, but landed on something that we both believe serves the text well and will be an exciting space to see the action play out on.

Do you think the story of Julius Caesar is still relevant today?
Absolutely, so many parallels can be drawn between the events of the play and the current political landscape, from Labour party in-fighting to the promise and perils of populism, so there’s plenty that audiences will recognise. We open the day after the general election, so who knows, depending on how the vote goes there might be as much unrest on the streets of Bristol as there will be on the stage.

What is it like working on a show created by Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and Bristol Old Vic?
It’s so exciting to be part of such a unique collaboration, and have the chance to work with people I wouldn’t otherwise necessarily have had the opportunity to. Everyone at Bristol Old Vic has been so enthusiastic and supportive. It’s been brilliant to have support from a team with so much experience and expertise, and have the chance to learn from that.

What has been the best part of working on this production so far?
You sometimes come up with these crazy ideas as a designer, and the hope is that someone a lot cleverer than you will find a way to make what’s in your brain possible in reality. Not wanting to give too many spoilers, but as Rome descends into chaos we wanted to start to damage and destroy the set which is otherwise quite clean and minimal, and thought graffiti would be a good way to start that process. The catch is any graffiti would need to be completely removed between performances so we needed to find a product which would leave no trace. Lots of tests with different products were done and we landed on a magic combination that works, so that idea becoming something achievable has definitely been the highlight for me so far.

Building on the brilliant success of King Lear in 2016, we reunite with Bristol Old Vic Theatre School to present Shakespeare’s riveting political drama Julius Caesar this June. For more information and to book tickets, click here.

Julius Caesar | Five minutes with the Costume Designer

With Julius Caesar rehearsals well under way, we interview the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School Costume Designer Eleanor Bull to find out all about the elaborate dress that awaits.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your role on Julius Caesar?
I’m currently designing costumes for Julius Caesar. The way the Masters Course works at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School is that alongside the theoretical design projects, each student will design the set for one large production, the costumes for one large production, and the set and costumes for a collaborative project with the MA Directors. Having already designed the set for Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Redgrave, working as the Costume Designer for Julius Caesar is my last major project with the Theatre School. Therefore it’s a real pleasure to be able to have this opportunity to be part of this brilliant collaboration with Bristol Old Vic, I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate the completion of the course and gain experience of the industry. It’s really very exciting. Before starting on the course I was working professionally as a Costume Designer, so it feels great to be getting back into the swing of a process I know and love.

What has inspired your costume design?
For me, Julius Caesar is above all, a show about conflict.  Not just the external conflict of the opposing factions vying for power, but equally each character and their internal struggle between passion and rationality, their public persona and their private life, emotion and reason. This sense of duality was something I was keen to bring into the costume scheme from the start, ensuring you see not only ‘Brutus the Politician’ but ‘Brutus the Husband’- for example. Attempting to humanise the characters so you can begin to engage with them as people, as opposed to simply politicians- or historical characters. I think it’s essentially a cautionary tale about what can happen if you ignore your emotions.

The over-riding aesthetic was in part defined by the Director’s decision to set the play in modern Italy, but equally defined through collaboration with Sarah Mercadé our brilliant Set Designer, who has designed a set combining Brutalist features with epic proportions echoing the Classical World. Drawing on that, the initial ideas for the costumes were designed to create striking and bold silhouettes that link to Ancient Roman architecture in a slatey, Brutalist palette, whilst still holding true as believable modern-dress outfits.

Who has been your favourite character to design for?
I like powerful women, and I would argue that in Shakespeare’s text there’s not nearly enough of them. Therefore I’ve really enjoyed designing for the women of our world. It’s been about creating fierce looks that emanate power, and it was incredibly interesting to do some in-depth research about how female politicians dress around the world.

Even now, it’s still so much more complicated for women when they’re in positions of power, and the decisions they make as to how they choose to present themselves are so heavily scrutinised, it’s been an interesting challenge to have to tread the footsteps of that journey myself.

What is it like working with Director Simon Dormandy?
It’s been a really dynamic working relationship and an exciting process watching ideas develop and change. Simon knows the play inside out, and is incredibly passionate about its relevance to today. He’s a really positive and engaging director to work with.

Do you think the story of Julius Caesar is still relevant today?
Absolutely. As far as I’m concerned you can see examples of this kind of political situation happening in places all over the world at the moment. It’s a short-sighted and reductively westernised opinion that all the public want is democracy. It’s a really interesting subject, and one just as relevant today as it was when it was written, or indeed in Ancient Rome. And as for politicians turning on their political leaders, you barely have to look further than our own doorstep to see that playing out.

What is it like working on a show created by Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and Bristol Old Vic?
An experience like this is invaluable. Collaboration is such an integral part of theatre, so having the opportunity to come together with Bristol Old Vic is brilliant. It changes the whole dynamic having this huge team of people all working towards achieving the same goal, and the Bristol Old Vic team have brought so much enthusiasm to the whole process. Working with such a well-established company, especially one at the centre of the local community, is an opportunity that very few students in my position are lucky enough to have, and it’s great to have that wealth of knowledge and experience backing you.

What has been the best part of working on this production so far?
During my presentation to the cast, in which I showed them the final designs for the first time as well as some bits form my sketchbook, Julian Glover had to point out to me that I’d inadvertently used a picture of him in costume for another production in my reference moodboard for the Soothsayer character! I had no idea. I’m a little bit face-blind, so I can be prone to this kind of thing happening, and luckily for me Julian didn’t take offence to me using a photo of him to inspire the aesthetic of a homeless character.

Building on the brilliant success of King Lear in 2016, we reunite with Bristol Old Vic Theatre School to present Shakespeare’s riveting political drama Julius Caesar this July. For more information and to book tickets, click here.

INKBLOC Ensemble Rehearsal Diary – Week 1

As they approach the tail end of their year in residency with us, and their debut performances, the newly-created INKBLOC Ensemble give us a weekly insight into their rehearsal room. This week, director Claire Crawford talks us through the beginnings of the Research & Development process.


We’ve reached crunch time in the INKBLOC rehearsal room, and that can only mean one thing… we’re ready to roll and start developing our show!

Back in April we had a fantastic week of R&D, where each day a company member brought an idea to the table for exploration and conversation with the team. These ideas, after their time in the spotlight, were then whittled down to a final two (no easy feat – we think there could have been about 100 shows with the amount of material generated), and we finally arrived at a decision. Our story will stem from a real life abnormality, when a container ship spill dumped 4.8 million Lego pieces 20 miles from Land’s End in a freak storm in 1997…

To say that the last few weeks have been jam packed and fun filled is an understatement, but it really feels like we are kicking into gear now as a company as we hurtle towards the show and the end of our time as Made in Bristol. Alex and Genevieve have been hard at work creating our social media channels (catch us on Facebook and Twitter, even Instagram), along with marketing concepts for our poster and flyer design. While Producer Amy is beavering away with schedules and logistics, Associate Director Krista and I have been mapping out our rehearsal plans, and as a whole ensemble we’ve started playing with, developing, and generating material for the show itself.

I’m so looking forward to creating and shaping our first production, and seeing where it takes us. As we’ve seen, things that go to the bottom of the sea don’t always stay there, and we want to dig far below the surface, delving deep into the murky depths of it all…

With Lego as our linchpin, stay tuned for INKBLOC updates from a different company member each week… enjoy!

INKBLOC Ensemble are this year’s resident company with Made in Bristol – Bristol Old Vic Young Company’s theatre training course for ages 18-25. For more information about the programme, click here.

Julius Caesar Rehearsal Diary – Week 2

Stage Two: Standing. (Spoiler Alert!)

From page to stage: For this second week of rehearsals, we left the table work and started to explore the scenes on their feet. Using the preparation work of the previous week, the units with their actions and targets, this week was about telling the story through space. Our lovely Stage Management team have marked down the ground plan of our set onto the floor of the rehearsal room, giving us an idea of the architectural space to play with. Blocking the play early on offers the actors a frame to start with before deepening the work on situation and characters. It does help to know where to enter from and where to exit.

We can already hear the journey some of the characters have made from the first reading to their first time on their feet. In order to be aware as a company of where this table work had led us, our director Simon organised a second read-through on Wednesday including additional members of the company. Our production is collaborating with actors from the Bristol Old Vic Young and Adult Company as well as The Bristol Acting Academy, who will be playing the Plebeians, Soldiers and Senators. Having almost a full team around the table, the second read-through, which was performed like a radio play, was charged with dynamism and we could visualise the grandeur of the world of Julius Caesar.

This standing phase is also the opportunity for the actors to play with the language that has been well explored the week before, as well as its beautiful rhythm. Julian and Lynn have generously and kindly taken the time to work one-to-one with our graduating actors on their verse speaking, to master Shakespeare’s famous blank verse.

Back on our feet after this midweek reading, we also had the fantastic opportunity to work with fight director, Jonathan Waller, who offered his expertise for the scenes of the assassination of Julius Caesar and the murder of Cinna The Poet. These scenes need to seem brutally violent to the audience, but must at the same time be absolutely safe to perform every night for four weeks. Watching Jonathan explore the characters and situations and then choreograph the action so that it can be both was fascinating. It also raised important questions regarding the use of blood!

At the tragic culmination of the Assassination scene, Julian Glover impressed us all with his extraordinary impression of Caesar’s dying breathe. It might have won a world record for the longest exhale! It was like Darth Vader was in the room with us, and coming from the man who played General Veers in Stars Wars, this was pretty priceless.

Finally, on Friday the brave company of actors accepted the challenge of running half of the play to remind ourselves of the work and choices we made through this busy week. Everybody has been working extremely hard; some of our graduating actors have also been working on other shows for the school and it was really impressive to see how well they had done all week.

Written by Charlotte Marigot, Assistant Director.

Photo by Mark Douet.

This July we reunite with Bristol Old Vic Theatre School to present Shakespeare’s riveting political drama Julius Caesar. For more info and to book tickets, click here.

Julius Caesar Rehearsal Diary – Week 1


And so it begins!

We are excited to have begun the journey of rehearsals on Julius Caesar with the core of our troupe combining 12 actors from the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, with Julian Glover (Julius Caesar), Lynn Farleigh (Calpurnia) and John Hartoch (Soothsayer).  In two weeks’ time the rest of our company, a group of eight performers from the Bristol Old Vic Young Company, Bristol Old Vic Adult Company, and Bristol Acting Academy will also join us.

Our first week kicked off with the company as well as tech and production members from both the Bristol Old Vic and Bristol Old Vic Theatre School meeting at the school. It was such a pleasure to begin the process with the full energy and support of both groups behind us! Our first day began with a read through of the entire play. This was our first chance to hear Simon Dormandy’s wonderful cut of the play all together. One of the most exciting changes is that Simon has given through arcs to all the characters allowing for those who are part of the conspiracy at the beginning of the play to have their say in the war of the second half

Our first day continued with the presentation of the set design by Sarah Mercadé and costumes by Eleanor Bull. Both final term design students at BOVTS, they have created a 21st Century Italy which allows the company to play against the backdrop of another dimensional Italy in which a populist dictator is coming to power- so, nothing like our modern world at all…

The rest of our week has been filled with table work in which we were able to ask all the questions about the play, the history, and our production which we will continue to answer in the coming weeks. It threw up questions of allegiance, power, relationships, and of course politics. We have broken the play into acting units, defining which character is driving the action, what they are trying to do to their “target”, and we have begun to explore the tactics they use to get what they want. Julian, Lynn, and John have been incredible leaders in the room pushing the student actors to interrogate the text in new ways, and the student actors have taken the buck and run, probing their initial thoughts, and assumptions, and stretching themselves.

The company has come in with wonderful work on the verse already begun, and Simon has been able to use the time at the table to begin to dig into the detail of the verse. One of the most exciting moments of the week was seeing Julian and Lynn each gave their versions of the line “I should not need if you were gentle, Brutus.” Their mastery of the text brings the play to life.

As we come to the end of our table work we begin to see the drive of tragedy and revenge through the arc of the play which splits two generations against each other fighting for the soul of the Roman Republic and poses the question is it better to kill a would be populist, or is what follows the assassination worse?

Written by Jessica McVay

This July we reunite with Bristol Old Vic Theatre School to present Shakespeare’s riveting political drama Julius Caesar. For more info and to book tickets, click here.