RSC Scores a Coup with African Setting
Brutus (Paterson Joseph) smears blood on his hands, Cassius (Cyril Nri) raises his dagger in triumph, and other conspirators dip their hands in Caesar's blood as the Soothsayer (Theo Ogundipe) watches in the RSC's production of Julius Caesar. Below, Cassius and Brutus argue over allowing Antony to speak at Caesar's funeral. Photos by Kwame Lestrade, Royal Shakespeare Company.
The city plaza, its concrete steps showing decay down to the rebar, is vibrant with African society under a hot afternoon sun. A seven-piece combo—clarinet, electric bass, kora, gourd rattle, and tribal drums—plays calypso jazz. Townspeople mill about, engaging in playful conversations, fretful courtships, and occasional scuffles. A witch doctor passes through, causing the townsfolk to make protective gestures against wayward curses that might slough off the soothsayer's rags. A man takes pictures of people posing with his cardboard sign of Caesar. Vendors sell fans and scarves bearing Caesar's image. It's the holiday of Lupercal, and soon a celebratory dance breaks out.
All of this is happening before the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar even begins. With both the African setting and a life-is-good mood established as the audience enters BAM's Harvey Theater, the sudden revelation of fissures in this society that comes with the play's opening lines jolts us out of our reverie. "Hence, home, you idle creatures, get you home!" shouts Flavius the tribune as he whaps his knobkierrie loudly on the plaza steps.
Mood, ever-shifting, is an important ingredient in this crackling Julius Caesar under Gregory Doran's insightful direction. The all-black cast and modern African setting are no gimmicks. Aside from yielding fresh portrayals of key characters and the Zulu-lilted renderings of Shakespeare's verse, this production keys us into the factional friction and coup psychology simmering in the scenes on either side of Caesar's assassination.
The setting in particular allows these aspects of the play to emerge, although nothing in Shakespeare's text has been noticeably altered: This African nation is Italy, this African capital is Rome, these African people are Romans. However, in their starched uniforms and threateningly wielding their knobkierries, the tribunes Flavius (Segun Akingbola) and Marullus (Marcus Griffiths) who berate the townsfolk in the opening scene remind us of the strictly conservative Islamists rearing their puritanical influences in hotbeds of unrest on the African continent today. Caesar (Jeffery Kissoon), wearing a purple robe, carrying a regal fly-whisk, and surrounded by an entourage of uniformed heavies who move quickly to keep even the people who love him away from his person, we recognize as a Third World dictator, popular to the poor, bothersome to the elite. In his dramatic trajectory, Brutus (Paterson Joseph) resembles Mohamed Farrah Aidid, well educated and duteous to his nation, but once civil war erupts, dangerously egomaniacal.
It is the scenes with Marc Antony, in a bravura performance by Ray Fearon, that crackle most. For us Westerners, coups are flashpoint moments: a ruling regime falls, its dictator is chased from the country or killed, and a new leader emerges. When you are not living these moments, they are little more than a passage of headlines: "Senate Faction Stages Bloody Coup; Caesar Dead"; "Rioting at Caesar Funeral; Uprising Drives Coup Leaders from Rome"; "Antony, Octavius, Lepidus Establish Triumvirate"; "Rebels Wage Civil War from Sardis Base"; "Brutus, Cassius Killed at Philippi; Rebellion Crushed."
Antony and the people of Rome, however, live these moments of terror and uncertainty, enduring the terror of uncertainty and the uncertainty of terror. Personal survival is minute-to-minute maneuvering for Antony; society's survival lurches on shifting ground for the citizens; and both of these factors charge the playing of the two pivotal post-assassination scenes in this production. Certainly, the tension in the scenes leading up to the murder is thick, as the conspirators plot and then prepare to carry out the deed, but Doran keeps the pressure on the audience after the deed is done, starting with leaving three uninvolved senators on the stage after the killing (Shakespeare names only Publius). They stand stunned until fearful realization comes upon them, and they scramble away. Even Publius (Griffiths), caught against the wall behind Caesar's body, hurries out in utter fear though Brutus assures him "there is no harm intended to your person" and asks him to assuage the citizens.
This helps transition our perspective in this play. Thus far, we've watched everything unfold through the conspirators' eyes. We buy into their honorable intentions, we accept their position that Caesar is on an unalterable path to despotism. Immediately upon the murder, though, we see frightened Romans, their shock natural in that they are totally unaware of the conspirators' honorable intentions or concerns about Caesar; in fact, the majority of Romans were eager to make Caesar king.
Antony enters, knowing that as Caesar's protégé his life is in danger. Doran in many ways has made this scene tenser than the moments leading up to the murder. Antony first demands that if the conspirators plan to kill him, do it now (Cassius acts on the request but is stopped by Brutus). Then he begins working the room. Up to now, Fearon has not given us much on which to judge his Antony other than being good-natured and obedient to Caesar, but now we see the man who would soon rule half the Roman empire and in a later play enthrall Cleopatra. As Antony shakes the hands of each conspirator, Fearon pronounces each name slowly, concisely, staring into their eyes as he takes their hand in both of his and pulls away to smear as much blood onto his hands as he can. He seems to be taking the measure of each conspirator, and they noticeably grow uneasy, especially Cassius, played as a ferocious lion by Cyril Nri.
Fearon's Antony pushes his luck when he displays passion upon noting, again, Caesar's blood-oozing body. His Antony seems genuinely distraught here, but it prompts another physical threat from Cassius. In the ensuing brawl we can see Brutus trying to keep Antony safe while Cassius is ready to kill, but the attitude in the scrum of the other conspirators is hard to discern: the postcoup dynamic of factions is at play. Antony's first concern, though, is merely surviving. He frantically shouts, "Friend am I with you all, and love you all"—and, as calm prevails, Fearon moves to the next line in the verse which is actually a continuation of the sentence, but it will change the course of history—"upon this hope: that you shall give me reasons why and wherein Caesar was dangerous." Brutus grants this and, further, grants Antony the right to speak at Caesar's funeral (and now Cassius turns with vehemence on Brutus; their ensuing argument is nose-to-nose intense).
Fearon gives the "Cry 'havoc!' and let slip the dogs of war" speech as a man still so distraught over the death of his friend and mentor that he wants nothing more than revenge. When Octavius's messenger enters, we get the first clear insight into this Antony, and it comes courtesy of a cut. The original text has Antony ordering the messenger back to Octavius with word to sit tight, as Rome is not yet safe, but then he asks the servant to first help him remove Caesar's body. Doran chooses to end the play's first half here, and with no need to have Antony and the messenger get the body off stage (it will walk out on its own in the blackout), Doran cuts out that segment of the passage. Thus, we head into the intermission with Antony saying, "Here is a mourning Rome, a dangerous Rome, no Rome of safety for Octavius"—and though Shakespeare provides no stop in the text here, Fearon pauses before speaking the line's last word with an expression that burns with ambition born of hatred—"yet."
This company unveils many such dynamic renderings of a text that reads (and often plays) as ponderous. Nri's Cassius talks in fits and starts. Brutus meditates to himself and commands others with poignant emphasis of certain words. As for Antony's famous funeral oration, Fearon's delivery of this literary and oratorical masterpiece is itself a masterwork of acting and oratory. He doesn't try to surprise us with this too-famous passage but delivers it the way Shakespeare surely intended. He first must get the crowd's attention as they already are leaving the plaza, then he needs to be sure not to incite their hatred for criticizing the beloved Brutus, and, that accomplished, slyly turn his noncriticism into condemnation using the exact same phrase, labeling Brutus and the others as "honorable men." It's all in the tone and measure, and Fearon wields this speech as a whittler's knife, shaping a new creature out of the lump of commoners who minutes before were so sold on Brutus's doctrine of Caesar's ambition that Antony himself was courting danger just by appearing before them.
As he unleashes the mob on the conspirators, Antony is now confidently in charge. When he signs the death warrant for his nephew, Antony does so with nonchalant disregard. Killing, even genocide, is part and parcel of any African coup, a course of action with as much moral implication as ordering lunch. As he sends Lepidus to fetch Caesar's will, Antony he rips up the paper he had claimed to be the wil in his funeral orationl. In this attitude Antony is matched by Octavius, played by Ivanno Jeremiah as a young, uniformed warlord displaying a haughtiness that comes with commanding your own private army.
Whereas Fearon masters the text's oratorical powers, Joseph brings a melodic esoteric to Shakespeare's verse. This is a charismatic Brutus who combines ancient tribal wisdom with schooled intellect, and the father-son relationship he engenders with his young servant Lucius (a put-upon Simon Manyonda) he extends to the other conspirators and to his nation. Joseph's bright smile, engaging eyes, and lilting speech patterns mesmerize audiences on stage and off. However, that smile sometimes has an edge, and he can switch that gleaming gaze to a piercing steely stare and back again with expert control. Cross this man with caution; Nri's Cassius always backs down rather than push this Brutus too far. Driven from Rome, his loving Portia (Adjoa Andoh) having committed suicide, and his leadership faltering at every turn, Joseph's Brutus begins to lose control of his bearings, and we see him pay more heed to his ego and status than to his honor and country.
Kissoon's Caesar certainly enjoys the adulation people heap upon him, but he nevertheless looks a bit weary. His behavior is not in itself despotic, though his trappings indicate otherwise; however, he viciously insults Cassius in public. Cassius's first line in the play is to demand the soothsayer to come from the throng and look upon Caesar, an innocuous echo of Caesar's order, but Kissoon's eyes shoot daggers at Cassius for his presumption to issue a command on his behalf. Later, Caesar's lesson to Antony to beware men like Cassius is spoken openly, so that not only Cassius but all the entourage can hear it (indeed, the text does not give a stage direction to speak this speech in private). Cassius's reasons for killing Caesar are probably more personal than political. As for Brutus, with such a Caesar proving too ambitious, he maintains that he acts out of love for Rome. Yet, something more malevolent is at work in him. When he pulls out his dagger as Caesar approaches him, Caesar stops, says, "et tu Brute," and holds wide his arm awaiting the final stab. Joseph's Brutus makes sure it is the unkindest cut of all, thrusting the blade up through Caesar's groin.
With such performances, the production design of Michael Vale under the lights of Vince Herbert, and the music of Akintayo Akinbode, Caesar's Rome becomes a thoroughly 21st century African locale. Yet, this Julius Caesar is thoroughly Shakespearean, its content and context enriched by the African rhythms and Third World connotations.
April 18, 2013