There’s a carnival atmosphere as the crowds gather for the Feast of Lupercal and the acclamation of the conquering hero - Gregory Doran’s brilliant “all black” Julius Caesar seems almost too obvious a take on a convulsive political play of tyranny, conspiracy, military coup, battles, chaos and personal tragedy.
Jeffrey Kissoon (Julius Caesar) and Joseph Mydell (Casca) in Julius Caesar at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (previous picture shows Ray Fearon as Mark Antony) Photo: Tristram Kenton
Yet the play has long been Shakespeare’s most popular in Africa. Nelson Mandela wrote his name in the text of the prison copy on Robben Island, highlighting its application to his continent. Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, translated the play into Swahili. And, guess what? It’s still got actors wearing togas and sandals - the black silk cloaks of tribal meetings and the marketplace footwear of only the hottest climates.
From the minute Jeffery Kissoon’s bear-like, swaggering Caesar appears with a growl and a fly-whisk, the show goes like a train, without an interval, coming through the grey, battered stone tunnel of designer Michael Vale’s arena-like sports stadium and spilling onto the terraces and through the auditorium along two walkways.
There are no forced visual references to Idi Amin, or Robert Mugabe. None are needed. Ann Ogbomo’s exotic Calpurnia pleads with Caesar not to go to the Senate like any suddenly concerned and troubled spouse, and Cyril Nri’s jumpy, insecure Cassius hatches the murder plot for the good of the people.
His argument, of course, in saving the despot from the Tiber’s flood, is that Caesar is “one of us” who’s grown too big for his sandals. And yet the crowd swings against Cassius and Brutus on learning that Caesar has bequeathed them his money, walks and orchards. In retrospect, and after all, he was a benevolent and much loved dictator.
That news comes from the arch oratorical manipulator, Mark Antony, whom Ray Fearon projects with a Brando-esque charisma and powerful conviction that immediately exposes the false sentiment and furtiveness of the conspirators.
In this context, Paterson Joseph’s appealing, doe-eyed Brutus is far from being the noblest Roman of them all - that verdict, again, is issued after his death. Shakespeare nails with uncanny prescience the fact that we can’t assess our politicians till they’ve gone, and we certainly don’t know what will happen after the election, the uprising, the regime change. Is Iraq better off without Saddam Hussein? After Caesar comes chaos and civil war.
The stilted delivery of the verse - only Fearon, Adjoah Andoh as a lovely Portia, and Joseph Mydell as a wonderfully calm and authoritative Casca, are natural verse-speakers - works strangely in its favour, as if the characters are grasping the tools of their trade along with their liberty.
In that sense, this really is a stand-alone RSC production - it’s already been filmed by the BBC for broadcast later this month, and it tours in September and October after the London run. This Caesar will be hard to miss, then, and instantly becomes Gregory Doran’s calling card as the RSC’s artistic director elect. He must hope that there’s no lean and hungry-looking Cassius lurking in the wings for him…