It’s a play where tricolons reign and rhetoric is king. And, although Julius Caesar inescapably concerns the assassination of its title character, the power in this play is generated more by the words themselves than by any tangible weapon of destruction. No dagger or knife wielded by the half a dozen conspirators is as pointed or as compelling as Mark Anthony’s appeal to his “Friends, Romans, Countrymen’; no death on the battlefield as resonant as the “Peace, Freedom, Liberty!” of the revolutionaries.
And, fortunately for the 2pm Thursday matinee, director Gregory Doran proved he was more than worthy of realising this, his cast expertly showcasing oratory skills to rival that of any Downing Street quibble. Ray Fearon projects his Antony with real conviction and charisma during Casear’s funeral, his delivery moving both character and stage audiences, whilst the grizzly vocals of Jeffery Kissoon reveal a Caesar who is more benevolent leader than destructive dictator as reckoned by conspirators.
The link between Shakespeare and Africa may appear hazy, and at first, even irrelevant. After all, more than four hundred years have elapsed between the Elizabethan playwright and our Africa of today. But Doran’s motivations for recontextualise the piece becomes increasingly apparent as bubbling conspiracy is concocted, as the power hungry are never sated, and as political confrontation snowballs into furious civil war.
Catchy bongo rhythms and heavy African accents do more than to simply transport the play into a different continent; it makes the play as a whole become more intense, more immediate. These are the events we see all too regularly on the news, and designer Michael Vale’s statue of Caesar reminds us of this- it would be hard not to compare the looming statesman to that of Saddam Hussein’s toppling statue.
Doran purposely omits any direct reference to specific locations of the vast continent, veiling the play in a certain air of ambiguity. For although the director may have decided to use an all-black cast, the generic label of ‘black’ spans a wide range of actors from different backgrounds and different locations- Nigeria, Ghana, Jamaica, Trinidad to name a few. A quality of the universal, then, is produced which allows Post-Colonial Africa to act as a timeless microcosm for the rest of the world.
Julius Caesar invites us to consider the nature of politics, to ponder: how can we really appraise our leaders until after they have finished leading? The dilemma is most apparent in Brutus’ pompous words that “we shall be called purgers, not murderers” following Caesar’s assassination, words which are undermined fully when civil war and turmoil blanket the land. James Paterson wrangles into the character of Brutus perfectly, the actor revealing Brutus to be far from the noblest Roman of them all, but, perhaps more aptly, the most deluded; we witness a man who enthusiastically stabs Caesar in the genitals, a man who self-righteously beats his chest when talking about himself.
Shakespeare is prone to becoming stagnant if performed poorly, and what with the prospect of more than two hours of Julius Caesar to contend with, this was a very real threat. But Doran’s cast performed with a contagious energy and meticulous polish all around, even if the pace did falter somewhat during the military scenes – which had the tendency to be too drawn out. Nevertheless, the production has breathed new life into this tragedy, transforming a play of the past into a play of today.