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A CurtainUp Review
Doran, who succeeds Michael Boyd as Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, takes poetic license with this production. But no guesswork here. He relocates Julius Caesar to Africa, for two very good reasons: 1) It is the most performed play of Shakespeare’s in Africa. 2) It is the favorite Shakespeare play of Nelson Mandela. In fact, Doran learned that during the apartheid years when Mandela and others inmates were political prisoners in South Africa, they kept up their spirit by reading Shakespeare’s works. The text, smuggled in to the jail, was affectionately renamed the “Robben Island Bible” (now on exhibit at the British Museum).
Mandela penned his name beside one of the famous quotes from Julius Caesar: “Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once. Of all the wonders that I yet have heard. It seems to me most strange that men should fear; Seeing that death, a necessary end, Will come when it will come.”
Having seen a generous share of Julius Caesar productions, including two others by the Royal Shakespeare Company, I can vouch for this version’s excellence. Glancing back, the RSC’s 1995 production in Stratford-Upon-Avon may well have seen the bloodiest presentation ever of the political classic. The blood on stage immediately following Caesar’s assassination vied with the bloody shower scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Then there was the tidier one at the Park Avenue Armory during the summer of 2011, which used multi-media effects to simulate crowd scenes. But the current iteration, without buckets of blood or high-tech wizardry, is far and away the top dog.
The press materials bill this Julius Caesar as a “political thriller,” and it is thrilling to watch the re-enactment of the title character’s assassination. It is a collision of modern-day African politics with the tragic substance of the Bard’s original play. True, Rome is eclipsed. But Africa is in your face. And it’s at once fabulous and frightening.
Michael Vale’s set is smart in its clean-swept lines and unclutteredness. A colossal statue of Caesar presides over the stage, and a large alcove and its surrounding spaces ground the set, alternately serving as Caesar or Brutus’ home, the Senate, or military encampments. Vale, who designs the costumes as well, favors traditional African clothes. And, uncannily, the robes worn by the men and women bear a striking resemblance to togas. Vince Herbert’s lighting hovers between naturalism and impressionism. Even if you can’t quite put your finger on why it works, it surely does.
The music alone is enough to keep you enthralled for two hours-plus. The musical score by Akintayo Akinbode is a throbbing blend of African rhythms, sassy jazz, and Caribbean sounds.
The acting looks so natural here you almost forget you are looking at actors. Make no mistake, though. This ensemble has their technique down pat, as they portray their individual characters, each trying to get the upper hand in this ambitious play.
If there are no star turns, but none is needed with his strong ensemble effort. Each performance takes on a pungent flavor. Jeffery Kissoon inhabits Caesar with a stoic air, and there’s a solid dynamic performance by Ray Fearon as Mark Antony. And, if you are hankering after a good rendering of Antony’s eulogy of Caesar, you won’t be disappointed here.
No, this is not your typical Julius Caesar. It began its life in 2012 at the World Shakespeare Festival and has steamed its way to the Noel Coward Theatre in London, then on to a UK tour and an unprecedented run at the Moscow Arts Theater in Russia. Following its New York run, the company is scheduled to perform at the Southern Theatre in Columbus, Ohio in early May.
Some Shakespearean renderings make loud footfalls. This production is one of them.
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