Designing Rome for the RSC: 'I'm not sure how many litres of stage blood we've got through'

Robert Innes Hopkins explains why Rome took a little bit longer than a day to build in the new RSC season

Four plays.
12 hours of stage time.
150 plus costumes.
Three directors.
15 months.

The numbers involved in the RSC Rome season are operatic in scale. The last time the RSC had put Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Titus Andronicus together as a season was back in the 1970s. So it was a satisfyingly bold challenge we embarked on with a trip to Rome on Friday 24 June 2016. The date is relevant as it was the day after the Brexit referendum. Then Trump happened. Talk of demagoguery, rhetoric, populist uprisings and unintended consequences continued for months. It formed the backdrop while we worked with the three directors, Angus Jackson, Iqbal Khan and Blanche McIntyre, on how to present these plays in 2017.

There was much discussion on whether to set the plays historical or contemporary. The contemporary political resonances are there for an audience in either version. The final choice was to set Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra historically and Titus and Coriolanus contemporarily. The four plays span the 1000 year that Rome stood as a civilisation, the events of the civil war told in Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra sit at the heart of the story of Rome and are based on
true historical events.

We have a few visual motifs across the four shows

The other two are outliers and sit at the very beginning, Coriolanus, and the very end, Titus, of the civilisation of Rome. These two are also less certain historically, Titus is completely made up by Shakespeare and Coriolanus could be based on an early Roman myth. This seemed to back up our choice.

It was sensible to have a season show floor shared by all four plays. The design was a metal floor with a patina of bronze. It needed to be very hardworking and durable. Within this was incorporated all the traps and lifts needed. We settled on a versatile triple lift, a complex bit of engineering which has given us 25 plus different configurations. Including Cleopatra’s tomb, Mark Antony’s speech plinth, the candidate platform for Coriolanus and the pit for Titus. On the shows completing their run in Stratford and coming to the Barbican, this lift had performed more than 3000 cues.

I'm not sure how many litres of stage blood we've got through

As the plays were written at different times in Shakespeare‘s career, they are tonally very different and ask to be treated as such. We allowed them to keep their own character, but we have a few visual motifs that carry through all four. The Rome trip introduced me to the statue Lion attacking a Horse that is in the Capitoline Museum. As a symbol of power through strength, it became the season emblem, starting as a heroic statue and finishing in Titus as a corporate logo on a 'Deliveroma' bicycle!

Blood is a very big issue across the plays. There are many technical difficulties with blood, not least regarding costumes. Much planning was made to make the costumes in fabrics that would survive the repeated washing, but not look like they could. I'm not sure how many litres of stage blood we have got through, but as this is the Rome season it must be a big number.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar and Antony & Cleopatra play in repertoire at the Barbican Centre until Saturday 20 January 2018. Titus Andronicus will play until Friday 19 January 2018.