Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Gregory Doran
Reviewer: Mary Tapper
The Public Reviews Rating:
The sense of anticipation and excitement is palpable. This Julius Caesar from the RSC has started life at Stratford, been televised on the BBC and visited London before gracing Aylesbury with its presence, and at each stop reviews have been excellent. So does the production live up to its reputation and deliver a relevant and urgent interpretation of the play?
The setting is a modern day African state. The scenery is all crumbling reinforced concrete arranged in huge steps rising towards the back of the stage with the back view of a gigantic statue of Caesar at the far wall dominating proceedings. With memories of Saddam Hussein’s statue being toppled in Iraq still lingering in the memory, the implications are clear from the off; here is a leader about to become all powerful and, with it, the tyranny that will surely follow. The whole setting works exceptionally well as we are drawn into the debate – is it better to rid the state of a potential despot or wait and see if Caesar will turn out to be an honourable and just ruler?
The production is particularly successful at the build up of tension and the air of menace that grows throughout the first half, as a conspiracy to kill Caesar begins to take shape. In Cyril Nri, as Cassius, we have an excellent portrayal of a rather unattractive conspirator, contrasting the charming and far more appealing Brutus, played by Paterson Joseph. Casting throughout is spot on and with an older Caesar, the excellent Jeffery Kissoon, we are reminded of a Gaddafi-type leader, subtly changing our perceptions of the man.
African drums and singing add atmosphere and depth to the production and, with excellent crowd scenes and dramatic lighting, we are transported to another world and held absorbed by the action. The soothsayer becomes a dramatic figure, naked from the waist up, with animal skins as clothes and a wild demeanour of near madness, often lurking in the shadows while action takes place, reminding us of his prophesy “beware the Ides of March”.
My one reservation was that it was occasionally difficult to hear the text. Accents are quite thick throughout and some lines are hard to make out, especially when voices are raised in anger. This is a minor quibble however and, as main speeches and all important dialogue is clear, it is easily forgiven.
Ray Fearon is a charismatic Mark Antony, Caesar’s friend who does not join the conspirators, and delivers a barnstorming speech casting doubt on the motives of the conspirators: the word “honourable” takes on a musical quality in the African accent becoming a hypnotic refrain and, with excellent timing and crowd responses, the rousing of the crowd is both urgent and credible.
The production also does a fine job of establishing the close bonds between characters. In the second half it is genuinely moving to observe the tensions in the relationship between Brutus and Cassius and the final scene between Brutus and his servant shows what a master craftsman Shakespeare is; for all his conspirators and senators, his grand men and talk of politics the playwright once again looks for the small moment between master and servant to connect with the audience and demand our compassion.
Lively and well paced, with excellent acting and delivery this production delivers in bucketloads. Transporting the play to Africa works exceptionally well, reinforcing the ideas and messages running throughout the play and setting them in a new context. As ever with Shakespeare, you are reminded that nothing ever really changes and it is as relevant today as when it was first performed. Recommended.