Julius Africanus is Big!
Once upon a time there was a famous Wayne and Schuster (remember them?) comic sketch spoofing Julius Caesar, where everyone was dressed in togas but the whole story was handled as if the assassination had happened on Dragnet. Since then, Julius Caesar has been set in many places and eras–and as far back as Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre the parallel to various contemporary tyrannical states has been drawn.
Greg Doran’s new production of Julius Caesar for the Royal Shakespeare Company builds on that tradition. Though the language is all Shakespeare’s Elizabethan England, the talk is about Ancient Rome. But when you enter the theatre you find yourself in an arena in an African country; people are celebrating a festival. At the entry to the arena, its back to the audience, stands the colossal statue of the dictator. The mood is contagious; the audience is caught up and, as the play starts (“Knew you not Pompey?…”), the aptness of setting the play in a contemporary and troubled African state with all its jockeying for power is understood by the spectators both on, and off, the stage.
Jeffery Kissoon is perfect as Caesar; Cyril Nri a crafty Cassius; and Adjoa Andoh touching and troubling as Portia;. All the characters make sense. But if you are collecting performances to remember (despite being clearly part of an ensemble that works together seamlessly), Ray Fearon is the Mark Antony you have been waiting for. His attractiveness, his power; his ability to switch from playboy and Caesarean acolyte, to calculating rhetorician, to steely and almost heartless triumvir, and finally to a philosophical warrior already irritated by and wary of the young Octavius, the range and energy that Fearon brings to his portrayal are breathtaking. But Paterson Joseph is equally compelling as a brilliant Brutus who is, indeed, the only one to join the assassination plot for selfless motives.
This production is strikingly theatrical and understands that power politics is theatre. And the funeral scene is a truly compelling climax and switching point in the play, as it should be. Fearon’s appearance to speak over the corpse of Caesar, in the way he shifts moods and plays his audience, is unforgettable.
Most of the individual moments that we all remember and treasure in this play were gripping in tone, and the rhythm of the evening is solidly worked out. Nevertheless, I thought the cast was still settling into the concept and there were a few awkward moments. Nor was I entirely convinced by the decision to keep up the African accents to the degree that they did – they could, I thought, have faded them a bit more into the background, though at times their lilt made for readings of familiar lines that certainly caught the attention.
The play was on at the main house in Stratford, but it is transferring to London for a run in August and September, and I suspect that by then it will have settled down completely. I found the performances so compelling and the concept so seriously intelligent that I’m tempted to see it again in London if I can, though it will not be quite the same on a proscenium stage as it was on RSC’s thrust stage at Stratford.
But I am also excited by the prospect because Greg Doran has explained in recent interviews that he was inspired to attempt the African setting after seeing an edition of Shakespeare’s complete works from Robben Island in which Nelson Mandela had written his name beside a passage from Julius Caesar. He was fascinated by this marginalia “asserting that [the play] spoke in a particular way to his continent.”
This made Doran ponder why Julius Caesar was the most heavily annotated play in that Robben Island Shakespeare. “Then, when I was talking to John Kani, the South African actor, he said to me: ‘Julius Caesar is Shakespeare’s African play.’ I think it was he that told me that Julius Nyerere, who was the first President of Tanzania, had translated the play into Swahili and also that it’s the play that is the most often performed in Africa. Then you look at African history over the past 50 years and see that there have been many candidates for casting Julius Caesar.”
This Julius Caesar is definitely one not to miss! It will play at the Noel Coward Theatre in London from 8 August until 15 September, and then tour throughout the UK. http://www.rsc.org.uk/buy-tickets/julius-caesar/ And it augurs well that Gregory Doran will be the next Artistic Director of the RSC.
P.S. The play was filmed for British Television and, with luck, may screen in the US later this year. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00twm0b