In an interview with Heather Neill for Theatre Voice, director Gregory Doran mentions that Julius Caesar is one of the most performed Shakespeare plays in Africa and, as he goes on to explain, it is not hard to see why this might be. The themes of tyranny, regime change and civil war which may well have inspired Shakespeare when he wrote the play, are being played out in Africa now. The decision to set the play in Africa seems like the next logical step to give the play a new lease of life. But does it work?
As we have sometimes found, modern settings can have the opposite of their intended effect, alienating rather than helping an audience to connect. Here, the modern setting is a huge strength. We never felt that we were having a political template forced on us – everything is suggested. The simple set suggests a football stadium and immediately reminds us how often in third world countries stadiums are used for purposes other than football. Of course, we also think of the coliseum in Rome, and the sense of a public outdoor space. The music and chanting which greets us as we enter the auditorium are distinctly African, but are probably much nearer to the atmosphere of the Roman forum than the Houses of Parliament would be. The soothsayer is played as a witch doctor, in ceremonial dress and covered in white make-up. Suddenly the supernatural elements of Shakespeare’s play do not seem quite so easy to dismiss.
The production benefits from an outstanding cast. Having recently seen Paterson Joseph as a bizarrely silent Duke of York in Thea Sharrock’s TV version of ‘Henry V’, it is a great pleasure to see him getting his teeth into the part of Brutus. He is the heart of the play – an idealist who really believes he can kill Julius Caesar and make his body ‘a dish fit for the Gods’, and that the people will understand his lofty motives. Charismatic and intelligent, he brings passion to the part, and articulates the eternal dilemma of the revolutionary. As Portia, Adjoa Andoh has a short time to make an impact, and her scene with Brutus where she tries to find out what he is planning is electric. We found ourselves wanting to shout out ‘don’t tell her!’ As Caesar, Jeffery Kissoon has to keep us guessing – is this man really a tyrant in the making? By turns vulnerable, affable, blunt, stubborn and wily, Kissoon lets us see the military man behind the politician. Caesar describes Cassius as having a ‘lean and hungry look’, and Cyril Nri embodies this description (and the uncomfortable implications of it) perfectly. Nri plays him as a flawed character who is slightly neurotic, often right, but unable to fully put his plans into action. He is the catalyst for the plot and full of edgy energy. As Mark Anthony, Ray Fearon is convincing as the soldier trying to survive the political turmoil. He may not be a politician, but he is a leader and knows how to work a crowd. In his eulogy of Caesar, every line is part of a conversation with the people – the contrast with Brutus’ lofty rhetoric is all too apparent.
For us, the measure of the success of this production is the degree to which we barely noticed the ‘concept’. Instead, we were captivated by the visceral power of the drama and the relationships between the characters, as well as the humour and inherent contradictions of the human condition. This setting sidesteps the twin obstacles of the usual stereotypical depiction of Roman ‘civilisation’ and over-reverence to the Bard, and allows us to experience the power of the story on an emotional as well as an intellectual level. We hear that Doran will soon be taking over as artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and with this production, he has certainly set the bar very high.