The plot to kill and overthrow Julius Caesar took place in 44 BC. Disorder, despotic leaders and epidemic disease are things which Britain bid goodbye to around the Bard’s time – across Africa the paranoia and bloodshed brought to life by Shakespeare’s play of 1599 is very much still a living nightmare.
Director Gregory Dolan places this story of plotting, imperial rule and suicide in contemporary Africa – with an entirely black cast – for the Royal Shakespeare Company as part of the World Shakespeare Festival, celebrating fresh and unrealised interpretations of the great man’s plays – which go on standing the test of time, admiration and versatility.
With all the magic, superstition and trauma that make simple day to day survival an achievement, an African revival of this text seems incredibly more fitting than one set in the “developed world”. Julius Caesar is simple in plot – when compared with the myriad twists and turns of Shakespeare’s other works – and fortunately so after the tumultuous happenings and the fervour with which leading actors Paterson Joseph (as betrayer Brutus) and Ray Fearon (as the emperor’s golden boy, Marc Anthony) render their roles.
Joseph’s capability as a stage actor had been confirmed to me several years ago in his portrayal of Brutus Jones in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones at the National Theatre – ironically, also a tale of quasi-despotic intrigue. Here he is a twitchy, very sweaty (perfectly bringing the climate of Africa to the stage!) Marcus Brutus – with a gleam of the maniacal in his eye – and is undeniably the star. For this is really a play about Brutus: Caesar – an excellent physical match in the form of Jeffery Kissoon– himself being killed off before the first act is up.
Fearon has us believe he is only muscles and a pretty face, but comes alive with passion in Marc Anthony’s rage in the second half. Brutus’ wife, Portia, is given a solid characterisation by Adjoa Andoh, bringing to mind Eve Best’s depiction of the Duchess of Malfi (on earlier this year). The token jester/fool was provided by Brutus’ manservant, Lucius: a wonderful and comic performance by Simon Manyonda.
Vince Herbert’s lighting was some of the best I have seen in a London production. Not for its splendour or scale, but for how it absorbed one into the action, preventing us from believing we were anywhere other than that horse-head shaped continent. Michael Vale’s stage was perfect and unassuming in its shabby, concrete breezeblock glory. Dolan must be congratulated for shying away from twee and clichéd representations of Africa (think lions and brightly coloured fabric and over jubilant singing and drumming). Akintayo Akinbode’s music was beautiful, discrete and moving and what a shame there wasn’t more of it.
Having been born in South Africa, parts of the continent are hugely familiar to me and watching this production I felt something hugely familiar within in it. One could attribute the superb quality of the production to the brilliant actors, design or direction. Yet, there was something else, something intangible in it that made it so special.
Shakespeare may have written the words, but watching this particular Julius Caesar we forget it is Shakespeare – even the Old English blends in with the dusty setting and voodoo shamans. We forget it was written almost five hundred years ago by a man who had never seen Africa and for two odd hours we forget where we are. Pure escapism.