The Royal Shakespeare Company’s all-black staging of Julius Caesar, which is set in contemporary Africa with undercurrents of civil war and the Arab Spring, is certainly one of the most inspired and timely Shakespeare productions in recent years. A large bronze statue of Caesar is even pulled down following his death, similar to the one of Saddam Hussein.
While Julius Caesar is a rarely performed tragedy, this marks the third high-profile production of the play in New York in just under two years. Two summers ago, the Royal Shakespeare Company included a different production of the play as part of its residency at the Park Avenue Armory. That revival, directed by Lucy Bailey, was so hell-bent on emphasizing violent warfare that it ultimately undermined the play itself. And exactly one year ago, the Acting Company unveiled a decent but forgetting staging that will be best remembered for the creepy resemblance of the actors playing Caesar and his wife to Barack and Michelle Obama.
Here, when the audience enters the BAM Harvey Theater, a large number of black actors are jubilantly dancing and singing the praises of Caesar. (At first, I felt as if I had accidentally wandered into the national tour of Fela!) They even wear shirts and carry signs in praise of Caesar.
Once the initial merriment subsides, Gregory Doran’s production effectively explores the political chicanery, turmoil and change of fates at the heart of the play. Doran’s cast is also able to mine quite a lot of humor out of the text thanks to their personality-infused performances. They also recite the text with clarity while combining it with a genuine sense of African dialect. Likewise, contemporary African attire is mixed with togas.
The soothsayer, with white paint covering his face, provides a spiritual, tribal presence. He even stands at the top of the set design of crumbling concrete stairs for much of the show, remaining a constant presence.
Jeffery Kissoon’s Caesar is hardly the triumphant leader suggested by the towering, gleaming statute of him situated at the back of the stage. This Caesar is a tired, aging man who is all too easily swayed and controlled by his more determined colleagues. Cyril Nri makes for a persuasive, appropriately “lean and hungry” Cassius, while Paterson Joseph possesses the sincerity necessary to make Brutus’ non-selfish motives for killing Caesar believable.