Julius Caesar is magnificently set in sub-Saharan Africa with an all black British cast
“The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power.“
In a wonderful production for the Royal Shakespeare Company, its new Artistic Director Gregory Doran sets Julius Caesar in Africa using an all black cast of Britain’s finest actors. Somehow the rhythm of Shakespearean verse and the clarity of the African pronunciation, along with the political theme of power politics and regime change, work well in the new setting.
Paterson Joseph leads in the complex role of Brutus ‘the noblest Roman of them all,’ a posthumous tribute, delivered by his opponent Mark Antony played by an athletic Ray Fearon. Jeffrey Kissoon as the egocentric Julius Caesar is the horsetail fly switch wielding benevolent dictator, prone to flattery and admiration from the mob.
The play opens with the African marketplace and traders creating an air of activity and anticipation. Designer Michael Vale gives us ancient stone steps, but to go to the Senate on the fateful Ides of March the senators wear black togas and gold watches. Dominating the rear of the stage is a giant statue of Caesar only seen in part and ready to tumble like those of dictators after their downfall. The Soothsayer (Theo Ogundipe) is a witch doctor and Casca’s speeches about the omens during the thunderstorm which precedes the murder are believable, especially the one about meeting a lion which in Africa is to be expected!
The production in Stratford, a couple of months ago, ran through without an interval, but in the West End an interval has been inserted immediately after the death of Caesar on the steps, but before Brutus explains why the Roman republic is more important than any individual. In reply Caesar’s blood drenched gown is held up by Mark Antony for the knife slashes to be examined by the crowd.
Antony’s funeral orations are examples of the art of rhetoric as the crowd are swayed by the younger athlete who topically, in his first scene, comes in wearing on a ribbon something that could have been a pair of Olympic medals. It is as a result of Antony’s speech that the conspirators are forced to flee Rome.
Julius Caesar is all about choices and the greater good. Caesar’s being offered the crown is a danger to the political system the Senators want to defend. Brutus reminds us that he was ‘born free’ which has special resonance for Africans throwing off the chains of colonialism. The conspirators are of course proved right because what comes after Julius Caesar’s death is the reign of strong, autocratic emperors, starting with Augustus’ bloodline (Octavius Caesar here played by Ivanno Jeremiah) through Tiberius to Caligula and Nero, cruel hereditary emperors who would have given those defenders of the republic, Brutus, Cassius and Mark Antony nightmares.
What makes Doran’s production exciting is not just the African context but the outstanding performance of Paterson Joseph as Brutus. He has an unusual look, his eyes haunted and conveying an intellectual and emotional range other actors can only dream of. Those battle speeches before Philippi have real drama through the agonised thoughts of Brutus as he sees the ghost of Caesar after the suicide of Cassius (Cyril Nri).
Jeffrey Kissoon nicely parodies the self aggrandising, about to be dictator, with an oily smooth persona encouraging the mob to applaud him. The result of his murder is that we the audience lose a magnificent stage presence. Ray Fearon’s Antony has us questioning his adulation of the older man in a performance which convinces us from the outset that Antony is a clever politician. Joseph Mydell seethes as the envious Casca and he and Ewart James Walters add gravitas as the elder statesmen.
This superb production of Julius Caesar is a part of the World Shakespeare Festival 2012. Shakespeare is a global phenomenon, taught in schools worldwide, and convinces that Gregory Doran is the right choice at the helm of the Royal Shakespeare Company empire.
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Gregory Doran
Ewart James Walters
Director: Gregory Doran
Designer: Michael Vale
Lighting: Vince Herbert
Music: Akintayo Akinbode
Sound: Jonathan Rudnick
Movement: Diane Alison-Mitchell
Fights: Kevin McCurdy
Associate Director: Gbolahan Obisesan
A Royal Shakespeare Company Production
Running Time: Two hours 35 minutes with one interval
Closed at the Noel Coward on 15th September 2012 but toured to
27th November 2012
The Noel Coward
St Martin’s Lane
London WC2N 4AU
Tube: Leicester Square
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Noel Coward
on 15th August 2012