The RSC’s ‘African’ Julius Caesar: not stones, but men

How many ages hence shall this, our lofty scene, be acted in states unknown and accents yet unborn!
Cassius, Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 1

Never spoke a truer word, that man with the lean and hungry look.  Cassius, Brutus and the rest of the conspirators are dipping their hands in the blood of the man they have just assassinated, and action that will unleash civil war.  In Gregory Doran’s production of Julius Caesar for the Royal Shakespeare Company which we saw in Stratford last week, the repetitious nature of dictatorship and civil war is reinforced by having the play set somewhere in modern Africa.  But it could as easily have been the post-Spring Arab world or just about anywhere else on the planet.

But there is another sense in which those words from Cassius resonate here: this is a production in which the entire cast are black British actors who speak Shakespeare’s poetry in vibrant African accents.  In an article for the programme, Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society, points out that, not only is Shakespeare taught in most schools in English-speaking Africa, but Africans also respond effortlessly to the rhythms of Shakespeare’s language and the relevance of the drama of Julius Caesar.

Gregory Doran and Paterson Joseph (Brutus) at rehearsal for Julius Caesar

For director Gregory Doran,  one of the inspirations behind setting Julius Caesar in Africa was learning of the copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare that made its way on to Robben Island and which was passed between anti-apartheid prisoners during the 1970’s, all of whom treasured the book, each highlighting passages and quotes that they found meaningful and profound.  On December 16 1977 Nelson Mandela chose to autograph these lines from  Julius Caesar:

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

Africa has no monopoly on dictators –  you only have to ponder this image of four deposed leaders – Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Ali Abdullah Saleh (Yemen), Libya’s Colonel Gadaffi, and Hosni Mubarak (Egypt) – to understand that this play could easily be staged in the Arab world.  Indeed, in the scene that follows Caesar’s assassination which reveals – through Mark Antony’s ironic evisceration of the conspirators (‘are they not honourable men?’) and his revelation of Caesar’s will – that the murder, rather than saving the republic, has set fire to it, I thought of another place and time, and another fearful and factionalised leadership faced with an inconvenient last will and testament:

You are not wood, you are not stones, but men;
And, being men, bearing the will of Caesar,
It will inflame you, it will make you mad:
‘Tis good you know not that you are his heirs;
For, if you should, O, what would come of it!

In Gregory Doran’s production, as the audience take their seats, the stage is filled with a colourful, noisy and frenzied crowd, yell and sway as musicians playing afrobeat rhythms whip up the excitement.  The set design simultaneously suggests a Roman amphitheatre and crumbling post-independence African architecture, a looming bronze statue of Caesar emphasising the dictatorial threat.

This street fiesta consists of ordinary folk celebrating the return of warlord Caesar, a hero after crushing fellow-warlord Pompey. From the off, Shakespeare avoids simplistic analysis.  Julius Caesar is a play about the encroachment of autocracy on a republic – the conspirators speak of genuine concern for the future of the republic at the same time as they seek their own aggrandisement – but in the opening scene Shakespeare focusses on the fickleness of public opinion.

But, indeed, sir, we make holiday,
to see Caesar and to rejoice in his triumph -

so speaks one of the ‘tradesmen’ who have gathered in the square.  The rejoinder comes from Flavius, one of the tribunes:

Wherefore rejoice?  [...]
You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!
O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome,
Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft
Have you climb’d up to walls and battlements,
To towers and windows, yea, to chimney-tops,
Your infants in your arms, and there have sat
The livelong day, with patient expectation,
To see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome:
And when you saw his chariot but appear,
Have you not made an universal shout,
That Tiber trembled underneath her banks,
To hear the replication of your sounds
Made in her concave shores?
And do you now put on your best attire?
And do you now cull out a holiday?
And do you now strew flowers in his way
That comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood? Be gone!

Paterson Joseph and Theo Ogundipe in Julius Caesar

This is a production that does not slow for one moment, the absence of an interval maintaining the pace throughout.  The cast are uniformly excellent; as Charles Spencer remarked in his review in The Telegraph:

The production is … a reminder of the strength in depth of British black actors. There isn’t a dud performance here, and Shakespeare – who was such an enduring inspiration to Nelson Mandela and his fellow inmates on Robben Island – sounds just fine with an African accent.

Indeed, the verse-speaking is vibrant and fluent, the rounded rhythms of African speech enriching Shakespeare’s poetry.  The acting also draws out the complexity of Shakespeare’s portrayal of the main characters.  Jeffery Kissoon is superb as a heavy-set, dignified yet intimidating Caesar with fly whisk and white suit:

Danger knows full well
That Caesar is more dangerous than he.
We are two lions litter’d in one day,
And I the elder and more terrible.

Jeffery Kissoon as Caesar

Paterson Joseph succeeds in conveying the contradictions in Brutus’ personality, while Cyril Nri conveys the ‘lean and hungry’ manipulativeness of Cassius. Ray Fearon is excellent as Mark Antony, especially in the aforementioned scene in which he whips up the populace to rebellion with the power of his rhetoric.

If the focus of this production and the reviews which have followed has been on the play’s relevance to recent events in Africa or the Arab world, the first performance of Julius Caesar, on 21 September 1599, also took place in a deeply unsettled times. With an ageing and childless Elizabeth nearing the end of her reign, the issue of the succession – and whether England would remain a Protestant country or revert to Catholicism – preoccupied the nation.

Threatened by Spain and rebellion in Ireland, that very month had seen the Earl of Essex, a Brutus-like figure popular with the public, defy Elizabeth by returning to London after the failure of his campaigns in Ireland.  He  would be convicted, deprived of public office and income, and go on to mount an abortive rebellion.  It was these weeks and months of uncertainty that Shakespeare drew upon as he wrote the great plays of this period: Henry V, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet, dramas in which Shakespeare shifted up a gear or two to produce thought-provoking dramas, each successive play pushing the boundaries a little further with complex portrayals of character and motivation, and reflecting the times with incisive commentaries on power, leadership and morality.

Shakespeare’s greatness as a dramatist is revealed in the way in which he transforms his source material – widely understood to be Plutarch’s Lives, translated into English by Thomas North in 1579.  Although Shakespeare follows Plutarch’s account quite closely, and even echoes some of North’s phrasing, characteristically he emphasises the contrasts and contradictions within the main characters – Caesar, Brutus, Antony, Cassius and Octavious – giving them an ambiguity that makes them more human.

Much discussion of Julius Caesar has centred on its structure, in which the titular character appears for only one-third of the play.  Some critics have even seen the action after the assassination as something of an anticlimax.  But perhaps this misses Shakespeare’s central concern: to explore both what impact Caesar has on the thoughts and actions of the other main protagonists, and to examine the repercussions of the murder, an act championed by Brutus and his fellow-conspirators as one both necessary and liberating.

Shakespeare’s play continued a tradition of literary debate about whether Caesar was a tyrant or the father of the people, and if Brutus was a liberator or treacherous assassin.  Significantly, gives the final words to Antony, with his eulogy for Brutus:

This was the noblest Roman of them all:
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’

This was our first visit to the transformed RSC theatre at Stratford. It re-opened in November 2010 following a three-year transformation project which has retained many of the art deco features of the 1932 Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, but significantly improved the experience for theatre-goers by changing the auditorium to a projecting thrust stage with consequentially better sight-lines and sound.

This is how Ellis Woodman summed up the changes, writing in The Telegraph on the occasion of the re-opening in 2010:

Designed by Bennetts Associates, it is just the latest in a line of remodellings that the Royal Shakespeare Theatre has undergone since its foundation in 1873. The original building presented a ripe fantasy of Ye Olde England, complete with neo-Tudor half-timbering. Its focus was a 32-metre water tower that loomed, Big Ben-like, over the town and was intended as a safeguard against fire.

In 1926, however, the tower and a significant part of the building that it was meant to protect burnt to the ground. A competition was quickly held to find a design for a new theatre. Elisabeth Scott, one of the very few woman architects working in Britain at the time, won it with a design for a 1,400-seat auditorium which backed directly against the retained ruins of the Victorian building. Its layout was indebted to her experience as a designer of cinemas. Intimate, it was not. [...]

Ever since, the RSC has harboured a desire to exchange the Scott auditorium for a venue of equivalent capacity, but of a layout much closer to that of the Swan. And the new auditorium really is a triumph. It has yet to stage its first production but shows every sign of living up to Michael Boyd’s billing of it as “the best place for performing Shakespeare in the world”. It actually represents a reduction in capacity of around 400 seats, but the gods of the old auditorium had such awful sightlines that the RSC struggled to fill them. A large part of the problem was that the distance from the front of the stage to the back of the auditorium was a daunting 30 metres – a gulf that prompted one disgruntled thespian to describe performing there as “like standing on the cliffs of Dover, addressing Calais”. In the new theatre, the actors can now make eye contact with virtually everyone in the audience. [...]

The new theatre not only has a 7-metre fly tower, but a 7-metre basement to boot. The Forest of Arden can now be summoned at the press of a button.

Beyond the auditorium, the results are more mixed. The new public spaces are generic – the palette of grey painted steelwork and full-height glazing serviceable but distinctly under-imagined. However, the more significant misjudgment is the one moment where the architects have allowed themselves a truly emphatic gesture. On the site’s most prominent corner a new tower has been constructed of a height that matches the long vanished water-tower. One can see the logic. The old building’s primary orientation was to the river with the effect that it turned its back on Stratford – a failing that has now been corrected through the creation of a much expanded lobby running the full length of the town elevation. The tower stands sentry-like beside the new front door. The architects talk of it as being wedded to the Italy of Shakespeare’s imagination.

And yet, this is not a campanile but a startlingly imposing structure designed for the purposes of observation. Visitors can take a lift to the top and, on a good day, see four counties.

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