Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Julius Caesar in Africa via the RSC

I have a fondness for the play Julius Caesar. Several years ago I directed a staged reading of it with an all female cast, and it was an enlightening experience. For instance, despite the fame of certain speeches in this play (not as many as in Hamlet, but still, enough), each and every one sounded new coming from a woman. Equal we are to men, but different indeed.

Design by Michael Vale. Photo (c) 2012 Kwame Lestrade.
Schoolkids are often forced into reading and reciting Julius Caesar, what with its nifty, time-saving combination of history and literature. And it’s true that, while technically a tragedy, this is one of Shakespeare’s historical-ish plays that doesn’t stray too far from the original source material. Who’s to say how far the original source material strayed from the facts, the setting down of which always depends on the politics of the time. At any rate, most of the time your Mark Antony, your Marcus Brutus, your lean and hungry-looking Cassius are pretty much what you’d expect, but not in the current production by the Royal Shakespeare Company playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (through 28 April). This production is set in 20th Century Africa, where all sorts of dictators, liberators, and military leaders have been rising and falling and toppling in the last several decades. Despite the modern setting, modern technology does not interfere in the telling of this story; rather, the lighting (Vince Herbert) and sound (Jonathan Ruddick) designs effectively help it along. The storm preceding the Ides of March is thrilling, with deep dark rumblings and flashes to frighten anyone.  

Theo Ogundipe as the Soothsayer.  Photo by Kwame Lestrade.
Michael Vale’s scenic design is earthy and practical, an imaginatively off-kilter setting that provided not only multiple levels for playing, but tunnels, or caves, and many steps. This is all topped by an imposing, outsized statue of Caesar, his back to the audience. Think what might happen to statues of dictators in the 20th Century. Vale also designed the costumes which, despite a hint of Roman togas, were decidedly not European. Lively and vibrant music by Akintayo Akinbode and dancing (movement by Diane Alison-Mitchell) introduce us to the citizens of “Rome,” who open the play celebrating their leader, Caesar, in the heights of rapture. That first scene foreshadows the people’s thoughtless reactions to come. Theo Ogundipe’s Soothsayer is covered in ash powder, painted to alternately stand out from and blend into the desert. He draws us from the ecstatic dancing and singing to moments of stillness as he speaks silently, questioning, looking upward. He dances, he talks, he lurks, and he finally pronounces the fateful words to Caesar: Beware the Ides of March.  
Ray Fearon as Mark Antony.

Gregory Doran, the RSC’s Artistic Director, directs this play briskly, powerfully, building on relationships, looks, whispers. Although the play runs close to three hours, Mr. Doran doesn’t allow us to feel it for a moment. The acting was generally excellent (although some of the African accented English was difficult to understand, noticeably Mark Antony).

Despite this, our ears become accustomed to the speech, and physically Ray Fearon was a remarkable Antony, a canny alpha male who can cajole, calm, and incite his listeners. It is Antony that becomes the hero of the piece as Brutus and Cassius and their faction diminish. Paterson Joseph presented a strange interpretation of Brutus as a glad-hander instead of a stoic, as if he had found Brutus’ entire character in his admonition to the conspirators on that first night in his garden, when they came with faces hidden from the darkness. He urged them not to mask themselves but rather to hide the conspiracy “in smiles and affability!” This jovial Brutus is an unusual choice, but it worked toward a fine balance of the driven characters. Poor Cassius was totally screwed and we felt each slight by Caesar as Cyril Nri showed us the reality of a man who is no longer preferred, no longer a part of the in crowd. He is filled with fear, paranoia, and resentment. In this production it was always clear that everything Cassius said was smart, and each time Brutus denied him, Brutus’ ego diverted and weakened the plan and his co-conspirators.  
Brutus and Cassius over the body of Caesar.

Joseph Mydell’s Casca was witty and malleable. Jeffery Kissoon’s Caesar was a jealous old man, a corporate kingpin with the power of life and death, chilling in his ordinariness. Several members of the company, like Ricky Fearon and Jude Owusu, had a fine time playing disparate roles. Simon Manyonda, as Brutus’ servant Lucius, was engaging in each scene, whether sleeping or waking. As for the women, Calpurnia seemed to barely exist in this production, although the image of Portia did linger, particularly in the reactions of Lucius, Cassius, and Messala (Chiké Okonkwo) to her death.

This is a forceful and vibrant production, a new interpretation of a story that still remains the same. If you’ve seen Julius Caesar, you haven’t seen one like this. If you haven’t, go learn a little history, listen to a little music, and love a lot of Shakespearean tragedy.  

~ Molly Matera, signing off to re-read the play yet again.

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