the RSC’s Julius Caesar comes to London
Having begun its life in Stratford, The Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production of Julius Caesar has transferred to London for a brief stint at the Noel Coward Theatre before going on tour around the UK. Featuring an all-black cast with some true acting heavy-weights working in collaboration for the first time, the action of the play is transported to modern Africa – a fantastic parallel to ancient Rome – where traditional music and myth and legend mix with new-age civilisation and politics in an intriguing, effective and utterly convincing way.
Director Gregory Doran’s idea of transferring the setting to an unnamed African dictatorship was a brilliant stroke of insight that not only suits Shakespeare’s work, but shines new light on the politics, oratory and belief systems buried in the words of the play. Devices such as magic, conjuring, spirits and soothsayers often fail to ring true to modern audiences because they are based on long-forgotten beliefs, but in Doran’s Julius Caesar the audience are confronted with a much more relatable platform for these supernatural phenomena in the traditions and superstitions of contemporary Africa. The politics of the African setting are also much more relatable than those of ancient Rome, and in that way the play becomes an education in the history of oratory as well – Brutus and Mark Antony make rousing speeches over Caesar’s dead body to the gathered public, using a Gospel-like approach which fires up not only the chorus of actors watching them but the members of the audience too, reminding us of what a politician’s job should really be like. Ray Fearon (playing Mark Antony) was especially charismatic in his role, his “Lend me your ears” tirade ushering well-earned round of applause at the end of the scene. The African setting also seemed to add a healthy dose of humour to the action, with Paterson Joseph (of Peep Show fame, playing Brutus) and Jeffery Kissoon (playing a brilliant Idi Amin-esque Caesar) giving some fantastically understated comic performances that had the audience in titters the entire way through. Although refreshing, the humour did sometimes – especially in the more tragic second half of the show – undermine some of the action, and notably Joseph’s Brutus didn’t seem to reach the right emotional level before his suicide. Mention must also go to Cyril Nri in his role as Cassius, a twitchy, perpetually panicking character who although seeming a bit over-the-top in the first half really came into his own after the interval, ownership of the stage being split between himself and Ray Fearon.
Although the setting of the play was a triumph, the set had its limitations. There was much potential for interesting level-work on the rising concrete steps half-way down the stage, but it was sadly not used apart from in large chorus or battle scenes. A lot of the action took place downstage centre, rendering the ruined stands and imposing Saddam-like statue upstage a bit irrelevant. Perhaps this is because the set had to be changed from a thrust arrangement to the Noel Coward’s proscenium arch, but work should have been done to adapt the play to its new space, and the lighting turned out to be far more effective in creating and defining areas on the stage than the set. The music of the production, however, was brilliant, the African drums and pipes conveying a range of atmospheres from the celebratory spirit at the start of the play to war at the end, completely aurally immersing us in that world.
Go and see Julius Caesar. It is a fantastic production, a real milestone for the RSC and an intensely imaginative and effective re-working of one of Shakespeare’s greatest histories.
Orestes Daniel Kouzof
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar is running at the Noel Coward Theatre from 8th August to 15th September.
For more information and to book tickets, click here.