Friday, 14 September 2012

An African Julius Caesar


If you visit Shakespeare: staging the world at the British Museum, the last object you will see as you walk round is the Robben Island ‘Bible’. 

This is a copy of The Complete Words of Shakespeare owned by Sonny Venkatrathnam, a prisoner on Robben Island at the same time as Nelson Mandela.  In order to be able to lend the book to the other prisoners, Venkatrathnam disguised its cover with Divali cards sent to him by his family.  The book was then passed from hand to hand, and the prisoners wrote in the margins next to passages that meant something special to them.

Nelson Mandela signed his name next to a passage 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.

Anthony Sampson, Mandela’s biographer, wrote, “in South Africa the play had a deeper resonance, for it vividly described how an oppressed people can realise their potential against tyranny and escape from their sense of inferiority.” 

It was this that inspired Gregory Doran of the RSC to produce a Pan-African’ Julius Caesar as part of this summer’s World Shakespeare Festival.  I was lucky enough to get tickets for one of the last performances in London before they begin a short national tour.

The Noel Coward theatre is quite small – with three gilded tiers of seats above the stalls, but shallow, so none are very far from the stage.  The set was a stone archway and a series of steep stone steps, allowing the action to take place at different levels. As we walked in, well before the play was due to start, there were already actors on the stage – the crowd in an African market shortly before an election.  A band was playing, men were dancing.  There were flags and election posters – a festive mood.

The act of transplating a play like Julius Caesar from its familiar surroundings into somewhere new can, when it works, shake you up and make you see it in a whole new way. And this one certainly worked.  The setting forces you to remember that the world is still plagued with once-loved leaders whose ambition over-reaches itself, and with clever demagogues who manipulate the population with their honeyed words.  

Here the soothsayer becomes a witch doctor, his hair in dreadlocks and his body smeared with white clay.  When Cinna the Poet is mistaken for Cinna the Consipirator and the crowd force a tyre over his head and arms, the audience gasps in horror at they recognise the implication. When the action moves from the Forum to the battlefield, the dust coloured uniforms seem to evoke every civil war that has raged across the Continent for the last sixty years.

Caesar himself plays quite a small part in the play that carries his name.  The drama is carried principally by three characters – Brutus and Cassius, the leaders of the conspiracy against Caesar, and Mark Anthony, Caesar’s friend. In Doran’s all black cast, these parts were played by Paterson Joseph, Cyril Nri and Ray Fearon.

The play hinges on the two speeches given at Caesar’s funeral – the first by Brutus, justifying Caesar’s murder, and the second by Mark Anthony, turning the crowd against the conspirators.  The performances here are electric, taking the well-worn words and delivering them as if no one has heard them before.  Every time Fearon delivers the line, ‘But Brutus is an honourable man,’ it’s another twist of the knife in the wound that will destroy him as he destroyed Caesar.

I have to admit there were a few times when the combination of Shakespearean language with African accents made the speech hard to follow.  Joseph’s Brutus is a carefully modulated speaker and I never had trouble understanding him. Nri’s Cassius is passionate and fast-spoken and therefore sometimes harder to follow.  But the energy and passion of the production carry it through. At the end I felt as if I had lived through a violent storm - exhausted and invigorated at the same time.

Julius Caesar begins the last part of its national tour on 19th September. The next play in the RSC’s World Shakespeare Festival is an ‘Indian’ production of Much Ado About Nothing, starring Meera Syall, which runs at the Noel Coward theatre from 22nd September to 27th October.

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