at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Friday 1st June 2012
*The performance reviewed was a preview*
Doran’s ‘all black’ production (an odd description, in my opinion: you wouldn’t necessarily describe a cast as ‘all white’) of Julius Caesar, cut down to two hours and fifteen minutes, feels like a modern political thriller, though it lacks any real drama and could do with having more pace. Seeing as Caesar is murdered halfway through the text, this cannot be blamed much on Doran, though the second half of the production feels slow by comparison and fails to really say much about the nature of dictatorships.
We enter the theatre to jovial music and a lively, crowded stage, and as the lights go down it’s clear that Caesar is loved by all. He had led his people to a victory and created a happier lifestyle. What’s odd, though, is that this feels like the jubilation which follows a revolution, and though images of tyranny (a large statue, pictures of Caesar) are present, this is far too happy a state and doesn’t bear the marks of repression at all. This means the plot of Brutus and Cassius to overthrow the ‘tyrant’ comes out of nowhere and is difficult to understand.
And while this production manages to ask questions about the nature of military coups and the shifting nature of politics internationally, the attempt to mix it with images of the Arab Spring falls short. This play is about the politician, not the ordinary man, which is utterly incongruous with the clips of popular uprisings we have seen over the past eighteen months.
That said, the central cast play the manipulative and charismatic politicians of the play with impressive honesty. Jeffery Kissoon’s ageing Caesar bears resemblance to many past-it dictators, and puts on a kind face for the masses. The problem is, we never really see him lose his rag and his wrongdoings aren’t evident, meaning Cyril Nri’s bewildered Cassius has a harder job to convince us that he deserves to die. Ray Fearon’s Mark Antony is powerful though gentle, and is the closest we get to hearing the people speak; his speech to the populace is fantastic, though by the end of the play it’s easy to see that he could just as easily follow in the conspirators’ footsteps by creating another dictatorial regime. Paterson Joseph is here on top form as Brutus, overly ambitious and willing to die for what he believes, even though that opinion is tough to endorse. They are supported by a fine cast who inject energy into the play (though the accents are sometimes a little, shall we say, scattered).
There are clear military references in Michael Vale’s set, which looks like the steps of the Pergamon built out of Soviet breeze blocks, though it feels a little static for a play which sees such broad shifts in location, tone and government. A bizarre moment sees a section of the copper back wall rise up for no apparent reason, and scene changes could be smoother. It’s also lit to excess by Vince Herbert, though Akintayo Ekinbode’s African music is interwoven well and changes with the state, as it moves from happy union to a land of turmoil.
Doran’s production is solid and strong, and I welcome the cutting of an interval in order to create a more thrilling atmosphere, but it’s difficult to shy away from the fact that, no matter how hard we try to philosophise in the UK, it’s tough to really know the effect and questions surrounding the Arab Spring. There are also holes in the plot and drama which means this Caesar doesn’t feel that tragic, plodding along with an unclear trajectory.
I also wonder about the verisimilitude of the term “World Shakespeare Festival”, particularly the Royal Shakespeare Company’s take on the idea. Though Boyd et al have invited companies from Iraq and Brazil to perform in their theatres, the majority of productions have been created by British directors – Roxana Silbert and David Farr co-ordinate the ‘Nations at War’ and ‘Shipwreck Trilogy’ respectively. This production of Julius Caesar now adds to that list, and though British directors setting plays abroad is by no means a Bad Thing (after all, Shakespeare did it), it feels remarkably like the RSC is giving us a peculiarly British version of the world. Naturally, collaboration between nations should be encouraged, but it feels slightly disingenuous to use the adjective “World” to mean “British-directors-setting-plays-somewhere-that-isn’t-Britain-with-a-few-actors-from-around-the-world”. It would be far better to have foreign directors tackling these plays with the RSC’s resources to give an entirely different perspective in order that we may learn from one another.
Overall, this once again feels like a missed opportunity to have a genuinely global discussion; perhaps in a different context Julius Caesar would be more impressive, but under the banner of the ‘World Shakespeare Festival’ it falls at the first hurdle.
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