Patrick Carnegy

Friends, Romans, Africans

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Julius Caesar

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, In rep until 7 July

There’s an honourable track record of versions of Shakespeare’s play presenting Julius Caesar as a dictatorial monster of modern times. In 1937 Orson Welles (playing Brutus) cast Caesar as Mussolini and staged many scenes like Nazi rallies. Despite a curmudgeonly critic dismissing the conspirators as looking like ‘a committee from a taxi-driver’s union’, the show was a huge hit and set in motion a train of similar readings. In Miami in 1986 audiences applauded the murderous disposal of Fidel Castro. At the RSC the following year Terry Hands directed a nakedly fascist Caesar, while in London in 1993 Caesar was played by a woman, thus supposedly representing the political assassination of Margaret Thatcher.

So there’s little novelty in the RSC now tackling the play ‘with a little help from Idi Amin and Mugabe’ as a headline in the Daily Telegraph put it. The real novelty is that Gregory Doran, who in September takes over from Michael Boyd as artistic director, sets the play in an indeterminate modern African state and directs an all-black cast. Doran says he got the idea from seeing a Complete Shakespeare from Robben Island, annotated by Nelson Mandela to the effect that the play has a special message for Africa.

As the RSC is no stranger to importing productions from all over the world, you’re only surprised that Doran hasn’t pulled in an off-the-shelf Julius Caesar from Africa. Still, it was doubtless irresistible to attempt his own take by working with the many fine British black actors still in touch with their roots. Who better for Mark Antony than Ray Fearon, or for Brutus than Paterson Joseph, happy to revel in his East African accent? — ‘a really sweet sound and it just, for me, lifted the play out of any clichés about Julius Caesar, and any clichés about Shakespeare’.

Doran rightly refuses what would have been the cliché of giving us an Idi Amin, Mugabe, Bokassa, Mobutu or Gaddafi. But it’s a bit of a let-down that Jeffery Kissoon’s Caesar is such a relatively harmless figure, an ailing war hero fed pep-up pills by Calpurnia (Ann Ogbomo) and who must puff himself up to assert his faux-authority.

There’s not the least hint that this Caesar poses any threat to the republic, to his fellow senators or the populace. There are no armed minders, no reason why the happy carnival party spilling out into the auditorium as the play opens shouldn’t have gone on all night. You don’t need to demonise Caesar, but you do need to show why the conspirators should be driven to assassination. One such reason could have been Brutus’ clear ambition to replace him and bolster the fragile republic. But that’s not apparent in Paterson Joseph’s Brutus, a good man riddled by self-doubt and almost relishing what it’s hard to avoid calling the grimly black comedy he’s unwittingly triggered.

If an implausible embodiment of the ‘lean and hungry look’, the Cassius who has spurred him on (Cyril Nri) is an eloquent enough mastermind of the assassination. Yet thereafter he’s so overawed by the unintended consequences as to be no match for Brutus in the famous quarrel scene, and indeed was often scarcely audible due to Doran having him spend so much time with his back to us.

No audibility problem for Ray Fearon’s welcome return to the RSC as Mark Antony. Fearon arrives at the ghoulish assassination party (the black-robed conspirators like crows picking over a carcase) in white top and slacks as though from a beach-bar. Effortlessly he handles his outrage, laughing with the enemy and shaking hands all round. Fearon brilliantly commands the stage as he goes on to predict civil strife, rising to a terrific climax for ‘Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war’. To his eulogy over Caesar’s corpse, the mob responds with shouts of ‘Mutiny!’, chanting and breaking into a war dance as they bear away the body.

Would there had been more such moments, for overall this is a show that promises more than it delivers. The richly gifted actors — the many superb performances include Joseph Mydell as Casca, Adjoa Andoh as Portia and Ann Ogbomo as Calpurnia — are deployed in what, at least for my money, amounts to a superficial Africanisation of the play. Yes, there’s African music aplenty, and Afro-vitality (crowds of supers, billed as a ‘community chorus’, swirling around stepped terraces outside an unseen football stadium over which towers an immense statue of the would-be emperor), but the coloristic effects are just not well enough supported by dramatic causes.

Never mind, there’s a terrific buzz to the show and it’ll doubtless go down a storm on its countrywide tour (July to October). You can soon see for yourself when Channel 4 broadcasts a specially filmed version.