Written by: Joy Anderson-May and Mike Medas
Edited by: Katie Segal
As part of the World Shakespeare Festival 2012, which celebrates the birth, life and works of England’s most famous writer and poet, Julius Caesar is this year being performed by an all-star cast of black actors and musicians. The production, which began its run in Stratford-upon-Avon in May, travelled to Newcastle before landing at the Noel Coward Theatre in London’s theatre district; it’s scheduled to continue to tour the country until mid October.
The Royal Shakespeare Company, under Artistic Director Designate, Gregory Doran, has produced an outstanding version of this classic play, in which ancient Rome is transplanted to modern Africa - with echoes of the Caribbean. This approach has been inspired as much by the resonance between the turbulence of Shakespeare’s ancient Rome and that of modern Africa, as by Nelson Mandela’s use of Julius Caesar as an oft-quoted political text during the years of his imprisonment at Robben Island. Less obviously, there are also strong Caribbean connections in this production of Julius Caesar, both in the casting, which showcases the premier league of UK acting talent with roots in the Caribbean as well as Africa, and in the carnival-esque theme of subversion. Such a theme underlies the regime-changing plot of the play, and there’s a direct connection with the music and dance used in the opening scene set at the ancient pre-Roman festival of Lupercal, which was observed in February, similar to the more contemporary pre-Lentern carnival traditions of the Caribbean, New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro. What’s more, the production’s Central London run coincides with this year’s Notting Hill Carnival.
Trinidadian born Jeffery Kissoon, one of the most accomplished UK-based Caribbean actors on stage and screen since the 1960s, plays Julius Caesar; Paterson Joseph portrays Brutus; Ray Fearon is Mark Antony; Cyril Nri plays Cassius and Adjoah Andoh is Portia, in a tale about politics, war, ambition and assassination. Although Caesar himself famously gets much less stage time than his main rival, Brutus, and is murdered halfway through the play, Kissoon commands the stage with some gravitas in his portrayal of Caesar as a capricious dictator, at once arrogant yet stately, pompous yet dignified. This takes some doing, as the rest of the heavyweight cast are equally breathtaking, vying for our attention both as individual players and in their high-octane ensemble work. Paterson Joseph delivers a powerful and mercurial Brutus, and is complemented by Cyril Nri as an impassioned Cassius. The dramatic tension between them becomes heightened in every scene they share.
The two main female characters, Adjoah Andoh’s Portia and Ann Ogbomo’s Calpurnia, make up for their brief time on stage by equally powerful interactions with the two main male characters, their respective partners Caesar and Brutus. Ray Fearon as Mark Antony also sparkles as Shakespeare’s version of the good guy, although this is a play in which there is no obvious hero or villain; Antony, Caesar and Brutus each believe he is in the right, yet combine honourable motives with cynical ones - just as we see in current day politics.
The African context is not so much grafted onto the story as seamlessly integrated within it. Shortly into the play it seems obvious that the rhythm of the African English adopted by the cast brings you closer to Shakespeare’s text than the public school accents in which it is more frequently performed. The same is true of the subtle use of African wit and humour, body language and mannerisms, along with set-pieces using call and response, music and dance at pertinent moments. Similarly, Roman togas morph easily into African robes, and a random lynching with a car-tyre ‘necklace’ along with modern day battle-dress during the war scenes makes the ancient power struggle as modern and recognisable as a newsreel.
As a mainstream production of Shakespeare which draws deliberately on the African Diaspora for its stellar casting, characterisation and contemporary setting, the RSC’s latest Julius Caesar has been extremely successful, also incorporating a televised version which was screened on BBC4 in June. After seeing the play, it is easily concluded that if more black actors of this calibre had RSC-sized budget and marketing machines thrown at them, we would have much more work of this quality. Let’s hope that UK plc is watching.
Julius Caesar is showing at the Noel Coward Theatre, London until 15 September, after which it heads to Aylesbury, Bradford, Salford, Norwich and Cardiff during September and October. For further information, see www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/julius-caesar