By William Shakespeare
Directed by Gregory Doran
Royal Shakespeare Company
Ray Fearon – Mark Antony
Paterson Joseph – Brutus
Jeffery Kissoon – Caesar
Cyril Nri – Cassius
Ann Ogbomo – Calpurnia
Adjoa Andoh – Portia
Theo Ogundipe – Soothsayer
Capitol crime. Julius Caesar isn’t a juicy play. The poetry occupies a narrow range between nobility and a bad conscience. Very little is inward. The famous speeches are public oratory, not soliloquies on the order of Hamlet. It’s the only play of his that could be read from a teleprompter. Only Mark Antony turns to the audience to share a confidence, after he has fawned before the conspirators who killed Caesar yet secretly abhors them. The central role is that of vacillating Brutus, who seems like a dry run for the truly tragic Coriolanus. For these reasons, a great production must make ancient Romans more than stuffed shirts in togas enacting potted history.
The RSC’s new all-black production jolts us from Cicero’s public-platform Rome to Joseph Conrad’s heart-of-darkness Africa (although the mood is closer to the sweaty furtiveness of Graham Greene’s tropics), to sensational effect. At a stroke Julius Caesar is no longer a protracted political debate. We have no idea what Elizabethan nobility felt like (it was an era when aristocrats commonly walked the streets with rapier and dagger at their side), and our filter for Shakespeare’s Romans has been a British actor’s impersonation of his grandfather’s impersonation of Asquith or Disraeli, utterly pear-shaped and flutey on the high notes. (In the Hollywood version, Marlon Brando’s Method approach to Brutus was fascinating chiefly for watching him, and for the oddity of seeing Stanley Kowalski peeking through.)
That plummy tradition has been bushwhacked here. In a nameless West African country, dread of tyrants is visceral, adding bloody danger to Caesar’s ambition. These are scary African males whose eyes bug with passion, their bellies rolling when they laugh, and any slight mockery could flicker into violence, machetes unsheathed. The total un-Englishness of it all brings unexpected laughter, too, in a loosey-goosey way. Hips are allowed to go to town, and the soothsayer jumps half-naked out of a tribal ritual shaking white clay off his skin like a panther shaking off a thunderstorm.
Caesar himself (the bulky, half-lidded Jeffery Kissoon) may be too spot-on in Idi Amin’s white linen bush suit, but he’s the essence of charismatic terror, with the vocal power of a pipe organ in full rumble. Singsong African twangs does wonders with the verse. Every line reading feels new and bold. Africans strut the verse; they enrich the air with golden syllables. Ben Jonson’s remark that his fellow dramatist “was not of an age but for all time” preceded the imperial explosion that spread English around the world, with Shakespeare slipstreaming just behind the King James Bible. He was for all places, too. Right now the British Museum has on display the well-thumbed volume of Shakespeare that Nelson Mandela read for inspiration while a prisoner of the state on Robben Island.
When Brutus (Paterson Joseph) rolls his eyes, swats away lesser characters like swatting at flies, and swings his body with limber ease, you feel that you’ve never seen his like before, even though Orson Welles famously set Macbeth in Haitian voodoo culture, and Olivier’s Othello sailed in from Jamaica, man, on a calypso boat, luxuriating in his verbal glory. Those slants were almost parody compared to the rich — and sadly underused — fund of eloquent black actors in Britain that fill out this Caesar.
Do these African portrayals also do justice to the play’s ideas? It’s not easy to say. A few London critics among the general raves complained that the ambivalence around Brutus’s decision to join the conspirators has been sacrificed. (Who wouldn’t stab Amin or Magawe if given half a chance?) In Joseph’s quirkiness you don’t feel that he’s “the noblest Roman of them all.” But we can only surmise at Shakespeare’s political context — his depictions of murdered kings on home ground are gaudy (Richard III), piteous (Richard II), and gory (Macbeth). He was ambivalent enough about regicide that Brutus’s warring conscience must have come naturally, like Hamlet’s. If only the character weren’t so stoic and self-contained (an impression deepened in this production where Portia, oddly, is made into a semi-hysterical termagant; the intimate scene before the assassination is a shouting match, not a tender reprieve).
Yet Joseph makes us care for Brutus, chiefly by inflecting his gestures in small human ways. This Brutus is amused by his drowsy young servant Lucius, tends to him like a father, and welcomes the distraction their banter affords from the burden of nobleness. The director, Gregory Doran (newly appointed head of the RSC), squeezes juiciness to the point where we lose sight of civics lessons. Rome doesn’t really matter a fig to modern audiences, and the political threat posed by Caesar (the return to kingship after Rome had long been a republic) doesn’t stir our conscience. Why should we pity dictators? Off with their heads!
A nod must go to the frightened, impassioned Cassius of Cyril Nri. This isn’t the first production where Cassius stole the show, and Nri transcends the jealous cur to expose a complicated humanity. For sheer magnetism, the Mark Antony of Ray Fearon, who is built along the lines of the young Cassius Clay, is unmatchable. He imparts such naked rage and sorrow to his “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech that the mounting sarcasm of “but Brutus is an honorable man” genuinely sparks rebellion — I was ready to leap on stage and run with the rabble.
In the end the African ploy works because of its politically incorrect primitivism — the conspirators become as bloody dipping their hands in Caesar’s wounds as killers run amok in Rwanda. And Africa still signifies a territory of unregenerate superstition, which amplifies the supernatural side of the play. As they debate matters of state, the characters are confronted with evil omens, auguries, lions walking the streets at night, nightmares, and great Caesar’s ghost — a panoply of warnings about Nature gone wild when the death of kings is imminent. As for the rather marked decline in interest of the play’s second half, where armed battle and power struggles are telegraphed too quickly, not to mention the abrupt end of Brutus himself and the enigmatic flimsiness of Octavius, who will become the emperor that Julius never was, you still feel that Shakespeare took such events for granted. His audience knew their potted history already. So he gave the aristos a mirror for nobility and lots of bloody bits for the groundlings. Without question, though, this Julius Caesar is one of the highlights of London’s theatrical summer. It isn’t an act of colonial obeisance, or anticolonial revenge, either. It’s about artistic liberation at its most inspired.