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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
JULIUS CAESAR
at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

SWALLOWING FIRE
By MICHAEL COVENEY

  Cyril Nri and Paterson Joseph/ Ph: Kwame Lestrade

Gregory Doran has been nominated Michael Boyd’s successor as artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and he marks the announcement with a revival of Julius Caesar that is as fast and exciting as any in the company’s history. It hurtles through at well under two-and-a-half hours, without an interval.
 
And it’s played by the first all-black cast in the RSC’s history, making unforced parallel points with not only Africa’s history as a continent of despotism, revolution and civil war, but also with events in the Arab Spring: when Caesar is toppled, so is his statue, which falls to the ground exactly like that desecrated monument to Saddam Hussein.
 
Doran has tried to “big up” the second half of the play by saying that the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination is the real meat of the play. He is right insofar as Julius Caesar is as much concerned with the aftermath as the central event, but the speed with which the last two acts are despatched also betrays a lack of faith in their theatrical staying power.
 
But Doran is nothing if not a canny, pragmatic and increasingly authoritative theatrical operator. With designer Michael Vale, he transforms the thrust area of the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre as a crumbling sports arena, with terracing for the crowds – local amateurs swell the ranks and have a high old time, especially at the opening Feast of Lupercal – and a deep tunnel as a players’ entrance.
 
The production slides over the battle scenes, allowing us vivid glimpses of characters in the murk. The report of Portia swallowing fire, the sight of the young attendant Lucius growing to military maturity, the troubled visions of Paterson Joseph’s affecting and principled Brutus, the defeated stoicism of Cyril Nris insecure and excitable Cassius – these performances are entirely different in tone and temper from the usual RSC-style interpretations.
 
Such confident reassessment stems from the fact, Doran tells us, that the play has long been Shakespeare’s most popular in Africa. Nelson Mandela wrote his name in the text of his prison copy on Robben Island, and Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, translated the play into Swahili. So it’s no surprise at all to see Jeffery Kissoon as Caesar striding out in full military regalia, brandishing a flywhisk with all the insouciance of a new Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya.
 
Even the superstitions of the play fit the interpretation like a glove, the soothsayer’s warnings of the Ides of March discharged by a semi-naked, cavorting witchdoctor. And the conspirators gather in the Senate draped in their ceremonial black silk robes that are the African equivalent exactly of the Roman toga.
 
Although the verse is spoken in a more tentative style than is usual at the RSC, this, too, seems part of the democratic process as the black actors take on Shakespeare as part of their right, an expansion of their cultural heritage in the tragedy of fickle political power and supremacy.
 
One or two of the actors are immediately at home. Ray Fearon, a former RSC Othello, makes a charismatic and craggy Mark Antony, even resembling the crop-haired Marlon Brando in the 1953 movie in both looks and anger. And the experienced Joseph Mydell is an effortlessly imposing Casca, making every word count. 
 
This is never a great play for women, of course, but Ann Ogbomo as a gracious Calpurnia and Adjoa Andoh as a beautiful Portia both make a considerable impression as supportive and supplicating tribal wives, while Jude Owusu makes a scary little cameo of Cinna the poet, mistakenly set upon in the street then torn to shreds for his “bad verses.” No one ever wrote a better scene of random violence during an uprising, and the chaos that sucks in the innocent civilian. 

 


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