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Director: Gregory Doran
The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Until 7 July, then on tour.
Julius Caesar is a difficult play to stage, and its ambivalent but thoroughgoing Romanism – heavily grounded in Plutarch – does not make it an obvious candidate for translation to alternative cultural contexts. If there was ever a felicitous year in which to make the attempt, however, it is surely 2012: the World Shakespeare Festival is in full swing, and Shakespearean offerings across the country have rarely enjoyed such a comprehensively international flavour. Gregory Doran’s new RSC production of Julius Caesar, set in an unnamed African state, is an extremely worthy addition to the panoply. It makes full use of the spatial and artistic resources of the reconfigured Royal Shakespeare Theatre, presenting a striking visual spectacle of power.
Michael Vale’s set is at once beautiful and oppressive, calculated to evoke the African without wholly abandoning the Roman. Its looming steps possess the unstable quality of M. C. Escher’s ‘Klimmen en dalen’, unfixable in place, mood, or time. Their amphitheatrical air suits the carnival mood in which Doran opens the production, as a vigorous community chorus throngs the stage before the beginning of the play proper: vocally celebratory and physically energised, these nameless Romans are eager to laud Caesar in his triumph – but piteously quick to transfer their allegiance after his death. The same background, presided over by a vast dictator’s statue (its back turned to the audience: a telling detail in a play so thoroughly driven by wilful rejections of foresight), also fits the bloodier scenes that ensue. Caesar lies dead before those towering steps for a long time, looking ever more vulnerable – “thou bleeding piece of earth”, Antony calls him, when they are finally left alone – as the gory and overblown symbolism of political change explodes around his insensate body. Doran’s production is exceptionally in tune with the visual, but this is a note of praise which should not be taken to imply that the overall effect is static. On the contrary, the striking moments are those when sight, movement and rhetoric fuse: the conspirators slowly bathing their hands in Caesar’s blood as Brutus’s outrageous invocation of “Peace, freedom and liberty!” dies away; Mark Antony’s confrontation with them — his insistence on shaking their newly “purpled hands”.
A play about involved power struggles within an ancient polis demands thoughtful reinvigoration if it is to succeed — outside the narrowest of fringe contexts — on the contemporary stage, and this is precisely what Doran has achieved. The risk, as always with a substantive relocation in time and space, is the charge of falling back on gimmicks, but the concrete recent history – both within and beyond Africa – of violent conflict, bloodshed, and displacement seems to ground the play, to give it a thematic assurance which bridges the Roman-Elizabethan original and the semi-contemporary setting. The Soothsayer is a convincingly shamanic figure, and an eerie, deeply affecting sound design informed by African musical traditions guides the emotional arc of the production. The cast showcases a wellspring of black talent within the British theatre, with so many good performances that to single out a few would be invidious – the larger roles are carried off superbly, but there’s also a wealth of cameos, by turns fascinating and poignant, without which the production’s overall strength would be much impaired.
Julius Caesar is a tragedy, the limitless tragedy of hopes always more or less self-deluding, dashed and crushed by the intervention not only of fate, but – even less bearably – of faults. It bears careful re-telling: politics never stop. Beyond its African setting, this production speaks, in its Aristotelian fusion of pity with horror, to the grim and shameful chronicle of the twentieth century, and to other, earlier moments of disillusionment and crisis, going back to the Robespierrist Terror and beyond. But this is nevertheless Shakespearean tragedy, replete with ambiguities, deliberate indecorums, laughter and riot. The tone of Doran’s production is spot-on: this Julius Caesar affords one the pleasurable (if unverifiable) illusion of imagining that, broadly speaking, the genre of affective experience that obtained in the original Globe Theatre is being replicated here. All in all, this is an outstanding contribution to the World Shakespeare Festival – the RSC at its impressive best.
Chloe Stopa-Hunt graduated in 2010 with a BA in English from New College, Oxford. She is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.