What:Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
Where: The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon
When: 28th June 2012
Julius Caesar set in Africa?
How do you handle that? Do you remove all mentions of Rome from the text? Mmmm… I could see problems ahead.
But remarkably very few materialised. Some things needed a little adjusting to. British black actors adopting African accents (successfully) took a while to get used to. Everything visually African (if a little stereotyped) but Shakespeare’s words emerging intact with all “Italian” references in place, a little confusing and inconsistent but much, much preferable to the alternative.
And some great performances. And I mean superlative performances.
Paterson Joseph as Brutus and Cyril Nri as Cassius are outstanding in this production. Their battles with the implications of being disloyal to Caesar in order to be loyal to their conception of Rome are written all over their faces and etched deeply in the words they speak. Caius Cassius and Marcus Brutus are very, very believable conspirators in these capable hands.
One of the telling difficulties in directing Julius Caesar is overcoming the sense of anti-climax wrapped up in the fact that all the major speeches come in the first half of the play. Gregory Doran overcomes this with major help from Mr Joseph and Mr Nri. First of all, he kills the debate about where to put an interval by not giving us one at all. This stands in stark relief to the RSC production of 2009 which must have had the audience dozing some nights in a second half which was very word heavy and lacked drama. The second key to Doran’s successful direction is that the latter section is enlivened by the dialogue in the scene where Brutus and Cassius are at loggerheads as they mistake each other’s intentions. The sense of camaraderie and brotherhood between these two is palpable and the hallmark of this strong presentation of what as I have indicated is not an easy play to produce.
Less successful elements? Well, with a stronger performance by Mark Antony, this performance would have been at the zenith of what can be achieved with this play. But Ray Fearon as Mark Anthony seems to have put all his energy into the funeral scene and doesn’t use the earlier and later scenes well. He needs to persuade his audience that he is the great orator and rhetorician who can carry the whole of Rome with him when he “buries” Caesar but raise his spirit to carry the Empire forward. His touch is way too light for this and whilst he is more convincing as he remonstrates over Caesar’s body, we are left wondering whether this is more to do with the strength of the words that he has been given than the performance. At other times he becomes almost cypher-like in the lack of weight he brings to the role.
But on the whole Fearon is good enough that he is not the undoing of this production. And, in fact, Joseph and Nri have many willing cohorts that bring much emotional strength and believability to this heartfelt performance. Adjoa Andoh as Portia, Marcus Brutus’ wife is excellent and Joseph Mydell as Casca does well in a role that can sometimes be lost amidst the other conspiratorial intentions at work. Jeffrey Kissoon brings the right balance of vanity, self-importance and practical acumen to the role of Caesar.
The African background and setting is perhaps not as remarkable and noteworthy as the producer and director would have hoped. In fact, the one scene that is not convincing is the one where the mob decide to “necklace” Cinna the poet with their tyres and lighter-fluid to hand. This is just too obvious and predictable – and mercifully short – a scene to stand with the rest of the production. A much lighter hand was needed in that moment and it was one moment that I will try to push to the back of my mind when reflecting on what was a bright flame of a production which will burn long in the memory.