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A CurtainUp London London Review
Julius Caesar

The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power. — Brutus
Julius Caesar
The conspirators
(Photo: Kwame Lestrade)
In a wonderful production for the Royal Shakespeare Company, its new Artistic Director Gregory Doran sets Julius Caesar in Africa using an all black cast of Britain’s finest actors. Somehow the rhythm of Shakespearean verse and the clarity of the African pronunciation, along with the political theme of power politics and regime change, work well in the new setting.

Paterson Joseph leads in the complex role of Brutus “the noblest Roman of them all,” a posthumous tribute, delivered by his opponent Mark Antony played by an athletic Ray Fearon. Jeffrey Kissoon as the egocentric Julius Caesar is the horsetail fly switch wielding benevolent dictator, prone to flattery and admiration from the mob.

The play opens with the African marketplace and traders creating an air of activity and anticipation. Designer Michael Vale gives us ancient stone steps and to go to the Senate on the fateful Ides of March, black togas and gold watches for the senators. Dominating the rear of the stage is a giant statue of Caesar only seen in part and ready to tumble like those of dictators after their downfall. The Soothsayer (Theo Ogundipe) is a witch doctor and Casca’s speeches about the omens during the thunderstorm which precedes the murder are believable, especially the one about meeting a lion which in Africa is to be expected!

The production in Stratford, a couple of months ago, ran through without an interval, but in the West End an interval has been inserted immediately after the death of Caesar on the steps, but before Brutus explains why the Roman republic is more important than any individual and in reply Caesar’s blood drenched gown is held up by Mark Antony for the knife slashes to be examined by the crowd.

Antony’s funeral orations are examples of the art of rhetoric as the crowd are swayed by the younger athlete who topically in his first scene comes in wearing on a ribbon something that could have been a pair of Olympic medals. It is as a result of Antony’s speech that the conspirators are forced to flee Rome.

Julius Caesar is all about choices and the greater good. Caesar’s being offered the crown is a danger to the political system the Senators want to defend. Brutus reminds us that he was “born free” which has special resonance for Africans throwing off the chains of colonialism. The conspirators are of course proved right because what comes after Julius Caesar’s death is the reign of strong, autocratic emperors, starting with Augustus’ bloodline (Octavius Caesar here played by Ivanno Jeremiah) through Tiberius to Caligula and Nero, cruel hereditary emperors who would have given those defenders of the republic, Brutus, Cassius and Mark Antony nightmares.

What makes Doran’s production exciting is not just the African context but the outstanding performance of Paterson Joseph as Brutus. He has an unusual look, his eyes haunted and conveying an intellectual and emotional range other actors can only dream of. Those battle speeches before Philippi have real drama through the agonised thoughts of Brutus as he sees the ghost of Caesar after the suicide of Cassius (Cyril Nri).

Jeffrey Kissoon nicely parodies the self aggrandising, about to be dictator, with an oily smooth persona encouraging the mob to applaud him and the result of his murder is that we the audience lose lose a magnificent stage presence. Ray Fearon’s Antony has us questioning his adulation of the older man in a performance which convinces us from the outset that Antony is a clever politician. Joseph Mydell seethes as the envious Casca and Ewart James Walters adds gravitas as elder statesmen.

This superb production of Julius Caesar is a part of the World Shakespeare Festival 2012, Shakespeare is a global phenomenon, taught in schools worldwide, and convinces that Gregory Doran is the right choice at the helm of the Royal Shakespeare Company empire.

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Julius Caesar
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Gregory Doran

Starring: Jeffrey Kissoon, Paterson Joseph, Cyril Nri, Ewart James Walters, Ray Fearon, Joseph Mydell
With: Ann Ogbomo, Adjoa Andoh, Andrew French, Chinna Wodu, Mark Theodore, Segun Akinbola, Ivanno Jeremiah, Ricky Fearon, Marcus Griffiths, Theo Ogundipe, Mark Ebulue, Jude Owusu, Marcus Griffiths, Simon Manyonda
Design: Michael Vale
Lighting: Vince Herbert
Music: Akintayo Akinbode
Sound: Jonathan Ruddick
Movement: Diane Alison-Mitchell
Fights: Kevin McCurdy
Running time: Two hours 35 minutes including an interval
Box Office: 0844 482 5141
Booking in London to 15th September 2012 and then touring to 27th October
Aylesbury Waterside Theatre 19-22 September
Bradford Alhambra Theatre 25-29 September
Salford The Lowry 2-6 October 2012
Norwich Theatre Royal 16-20 October
Cardiff New Theatre 23-27 October
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 15th August 2012 performance at Noel Coward Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London WC2N 4AU (Tube: Leicester Square)

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