It is undoubtedly challenging to stage a modern Shakespearean adaptation. Although in Julius Caesar the speeches are powerful and iconic, it is difficult to rejuvenate the play without taking it out of the traditional setting of ancient Rome, consequently restricting the play somewhat in terms of modernisation. This RSC production, directed by Gregory Doran, is uprooted to modern day Africa, a country so vibrant and culturally rich, the play is almost unrecognisable. Without exclusively removing any references to its original setting, the world of Africa is brought to the stage with such vigour that these references go almost unnoticed. This new setting is not only extremely relevant in terms of ethical debate about political murder, but it also highlights the potential spiritual qualities of the original text. The soothsayer is portrayed as a harrowing African shaman, a significantly symbolic figure whose presence throughout Caesar’s scenes provides an African mysticism, ensuring a certain sense of foreboding to the play.
What was especially striking was the strong characterisation. Paterson Joseph effectively portrays the strong and impulsive Brutus, delivering earlier speeches with passion and angst. Cyril Nri’s Cassius compliments Joseph’s Brutus perfectly, his careful plotting suggesting him to be the brains behind the assassination. The pair become an apparently indestructible duo, ensuring the formation of the circle of conspirators. A young Mark Anthony played by Ray Fearon is perhaps sometimes too boisterous, often shouting lines and rushing some iconic speeches. His ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’ speech is delivered in a way which doesn’t evoke that traditional passionate influence he is meant to possess. Jeffery Kissoon’s Caesar is easily influenced and slightly more frail than one would perhaps expect, but this ensures that the assassination has a more focused reasoning; a revolt against a stale, tired leadership. One of the play’s greatest strengths is its ability to extract humour from the most unsuspecting of scenes. Relying largely on acting skills, the audience erupted into laughter during battle scenes with the affectionate exchanges between Lucius, played excellently by Simon Manyonda, and his master. Being a largely dominated male play, there are some fantastic cameos from actresses, mainly Adjoa Andoh’s Portia, whose strength and sensuality makes her scenes with Brutus both compelling and poignant. Begging Brutus to let her in on his battle with his conscience, Andoh’s Portia is powerful and determined, refraining from falling into stereotypical representations of the whimpering, helpless female.
Michael Vale’s set was simple yet effective. Economically structured, with the help of expert lighting, the stage was transformed into different settings without the disturbance of laborious scene changes. A difficult task with staging this production is how to conduct the battle scenes. This was done smoothly and efficiently by cast members, albeit giving said scenes a slightly fleeting feel. Shakespearean battle scenes do tend to be fragmented and fast-paced, but the production did not do much to soothe this. The live African music and energetic fanfares reminiscent of the traditional flourish brings that well-needed boost to the play whilst also reminding the audience of its cultural significance. The play’s sense of place was so protruding that it became the production’s greatest strength.
There are layers of meaning in Julius Caesar, and the RSC succeed in bringing us a revitalised adaptation with an interesting setting. It is refreshing to be reminded that these traditional, iconic plays can be re-invented and relocated in order to explore potential new interpretations.