Say, Caesar, Say: Julius Caesar at BAM

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Paterson Joseph @Richard Termine

Paterson Joseph @Richard Termine

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An earlier version of this review was first published in Irish Examiner USA, Tuesday, April 16.

Live music! Big statues! African dancing! A volatile mob!

Setting William Shakespeare’s conspiracy drama “Julius Caesar” in Africa sounds like a great idea.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s artistic director Gregory Doran came up with the idea for an all-black Caesar, he’s said, when he learned that South African dissident Nelson Mandela had read the play in prison and underlined a passage in it.

That observation has made sense to English critics, but not to me. I don’t understand how you get from “educated man sees relevance in Shakespeare play to his situation” to “the whole thing should be set in Africa!” Honestly, it sounds a little condescending. If Solzhenitsyn had read it in the Gulag, would that mean the play reflects Stalin and Russia? The setting looks more like Haiti or the Congo than South Africa, which was not an unstable dictatorship. But never mind that; what matters is the execution.

And at first, when you enter the theatre at BAM’s Harvey Theater, you think it’s going to be really fresh. A band plays jaunty music, while a crowd dances, singing “Caesar!” A large bust faces upstage, against a background of corrugated tin. People carry stenciled signs with the word “Caesar” on them. The soothsayer comes on, dressed as a witch doctor in dreads and white makeup. The exuberant dancing captures a mob’s happy spirit.

“Julius Caesar” is a brilliant play, and a difficult one. Oskar Eustis, now the artistic director of The Public Theater, directed an unforgettable version with men in suits set in the Kennedy era at California Shakespeare Theatre in 1988. But whether it uses togas or suits, a political drama has pitfalls: the characters can seem interchangeable.

It can become talky as characters plot. In short – it can quickly become boring.

At first it seems like Doran’s got that covered.

And then, not so much.

The world-renowned Royal Shakespeare Company returns to BAM with a new twist on Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Set in present-day Africa and featuring an all-black cast, this visionary production echoes recent regime struggles throughout the continent. The first production from the RSC's newly appointed artistic director Gregory Doran, this staging features sets by Michael Vale and live performances of contemporary West African music, fostering the contemporary resonance of this classic political thriller. According to The Guardian (UK), "...Doran's production gives the play's central debate about the necessary political murder a new immediacy."

@Richard Termine

Everybody speaks in an African accent. It’s consistent, but difficult to understand, and works against Shakespeare’s poetry. Sure, it’s impressive that the cast can make Elizabethan English sound natural to the dialect but – then what? Some of the play’s most quoted passages go by too fast, because they’re in that same tossed-off cadence. “Cassius has a lean and hungry look,” for example, Caesar’s suspicions that Cassius is not to be trusted, comes across as the whimsical complaint of an Idi Amin-like tyrant. Mark Antony’s “let slip the dogs of war” fades in his sing-song delivery.

In the play, Cassius (Cyril Nri) incites Caesar’s friend Brutus (Paterson Joseph) and other senators to murder Caesar (Jeffery Kissoon) because he might accept the crown of king, even though he refuses it three times as the play begins. It’s like “Minority Report” (the other way round, of course), as they fear what Caesar might do. After they kill Caesar, on the Ides of March, they have to deal with the disapproval of Caesar’s friend Mark Antony (Ray Fearon). The second half opens at Caesar’s funeral, with one of the most famous bits of oratory ever written, as Antony turns the crowd against Brutus by praising him, repeating “Brutus is an honorable man.” The musical delivery flattens the build.

Earlier, Brutus gives a speech about how he loved Rome even more than Caesar. A member of the crowd turns around and says meekly,

“Give him a statue.”

It was one of my favorite moments of the play. The crowd were wonderful.

There’s a lot of shouting. There’s a lot of people talking in the same register. A quarrel between hot-headed Brutus and the dramatic Cassius in the

@Richard Termine

Cyril Nri @Richard Termine

second half zings, but the RSC shouldn’t need a whole act to warm up.

Cassius was riveting. Nri manages to be both African and interesting, and the poetry he finds in his speeches stands out in sharp relief to Joseph’s’ hot-headed delivery. Simon Manyonda as Lucius, Brutus’ sleepy boy servant, brought pathos to his small role.

Doran’s direction lags, and he makes some questionable choices, such as when the mob pours gasoline on the poet Cinna (Jude Owusu), even though he’s not the conspirator Cinna. Instead of feeling pity or fear of the mob, I wondered, “how are they going to pull this off?” Of course, they couldn’t burn him onstage, and Sinna ran off.

Then smoke rose up. Come on. The wonderful band disappeared after the opening and did not return until the end.

Overall, the concept took over the play. As a result, this “Julius Caesar” was uninvolving. It should have been thrilling.

“Julius Caesar”, presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company and The Ohio State University, plays at the BAM Harvey Theater through April 28.

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