It may not be a particularly original idea to transpose Shakespeare to modern day Africa, but rarely has it been done so well as in the RSC’s stirring new staging of Julius Caesar. Transferring to London after its critically acclaimed Stratford run, Gregory Doran’s production proves itself more than worthy of its plaudits, managing the tricky combination of being both contemporary and relevant while remaining utterly true to the original text.
Playing as part of the World Shakespeare Festival, this certainly feels like a global show, with references not just to its unnamed African setting but obvious nods to the Arab Spring, with toppling statues and the confusion of a messy battle’s ebb and flow where, in the fog of war, it’s all too hard to tell who the real winners are, or what the ultimate price of victory may be. Brutally up-to-date references like the baying mob ‘necklacing’ a suspected traitor remind us that we haven’t come that far from the unpredictable violence of the ancient world, without ever feeling forced. This subtle mix of the ancient and the modern is highlighted by Michael Vale’s clever set, which could serve equally as the centre of an African city or the streets of Caesar’s Rome.
The decision to not just make the play look African but also sound it is a masterstroke; the musicality of the accents are a perfect complement to the poetry of the language (the latter making up for the occasional wobble in the former) and the skilful interweaving of music and singing, so integral to everyday African life, gives the piece vibrancy, immediacy and a surprising familiarity; it’s amazing how evocative such music can be even to those of us whose only experience of the continent is to have seen it on the news. Despite the subject’s seriousness, the production allows itself plenty of laughter (Brutus’ affectionately exasperated interaction with his servant Lucius, the interplay of the citizenry) even if this is often pitch dark humour, seized in the small moments between storms.
Doran is well-served by a superlative all-black cast. Paterson Joseph as Brutus and Ray Fearon as Mark Antony give well-matched, muscular performances as two men who should have been equals had fate not made them enemies, while Cyril Nri’s Cassius is compelling as the conspirator who sets the whole fatal process in motion. Adjoa Andoh gives us a fierce and frantic Portia, her chemistry with Joseph making her off-stage death a real tragedy; you can feel the weight of her loss as her beleaguered husband struggles on without her. In fact, for a play dominated by the masculine and the military, the domestic scenes are beautifully handled, whether it be Portia’s plea to be allowed into Brutus’ confidences, or Ann Ogbomo’s Calpurnia desperately trying to convince Caesar not to step out on the Ides of March, her husband at first being swayed by her arguments before allowing himself to be flattered into recklessness.
As the doomed Caesar, Jeffrey Kissoon ably conjures up a solider-politician made both weary and arrogant by success, but for me, he lacked the charisma of a leader who could inspire genuine love, or the menace to make men truly fear him, which undermined the impact of his assassination and its consequences, both personal and political. This quibble, though, is swept aside by passionate performances that ratchet up the tension as the conspirators are not so much defeated by their opponents as crumble under their own flaws: Cassius’ willingness to too easily believe the worst of things leading him to accept a fatal misinterpretation of a battle scene, while Brutus’ compromised honour is further shaken by guilty nightmares and the phantoms of the dead.
In a year when there is so much focus on Shakespeare, Doran reminds us of why he is worthy of all of this attention: that you can make his works specific without ever sacrificing their universality and that, recognisable as they are, his words still can sound fresh and newly minted. The result is one of the most exciting interpretations of Shakespeare to have graced the stage in years.