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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Julius Caesar: The Bard With More Bounce

by Heather Neill

Jeffery Kisson, Jude Owusu, Ricky Fearon and Mark Theodore. Photo: Kwame Lestrade

“Cowards die many times before their deaths: The valiant never taste of death but once.”

These lines, spoken by Caesar, were marked and signed by Nelson Mandela in the collection of Shakespeare’s plays secretly shared by the ANC prisoners on Robben Island. Some years ago, director Gregory Doran met Mandela and saw the legendary volume, its cover hidden under pictures of Hindu gods.

Doran traveled widely in Africa and was aware of the familiar post-colonial pattern of a popular hero becoming first leader, then dictator, precipitating military coups and civil war. “This is,” he says, “exactly the story of Julius Caesar.” Candidates for a modern-day Caesar, from Bokassa to Amin to Mugabe, immediately came to mind. He also knew that the play had been translated into a number of African languages and was perhaps the most frequently performed Shakespeare play on the continent.

In the markets Doran noticed items of ju ju magic displayed next to household goods. The Soothsayer who warns Caesar is not unlike the sangomas or witch doctors found in Africa, where a belief in magic is still part of everyday life, much as it was in Shakespeare’s England.

The idea for an African Julius Caesar, to be presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company, thus began to take shape. Doran decided to test it out and invited a number of academics, Africa experts, and leading black British actors to a symposium in 2011. They concluded that it was an astonishingly apt fit, but Doran made clear that neat parallels that suggested the play was “only about Africa or about a particular part of Africa” would be limiting. As West African accents are most familiar to British ears and could be easily placed from a particular country, the company opted for something closer to an East African accent. As it happens, this suits the iambic line particularly well. “Conversationally,” says Doran, “Brits’ vocal rhythms tend to fall away at the end of a line. There is more vigor, a richer quality with African rhythms, greater ‘bounce’—probably closer to the way Shakespeare’s verse was spoken originally.”

During the symposium, world events suddenly seemed terribly relevant: the Arab Spring had begun in North Africa. Doran says: “Shakespeare is like a magnet to which the iron filings of the rest of the world are attracted. The big question at the time was not ‘Will they get rid of Qadaffi?,’ but ‘What happens when he’s gone?’ My challenge was to investigate not ‘Will they assassinate Caesar?’—surely this is a fact everyone knows—but the urgent political question: ‘What happens next?’” To lessen any sense of anticlimax in the play’s second half, Doran decided to dispense with an intermission and give the momentum of events full rein.

This immediately focuses attention on the two main conspirators, Brutus and Cassius. Doran said, “Is Brutus a republican hero or a woolly liberal who hasn’t thought it through? Cassius seems to me to have all the right ideas, but the wrong temperament, while the opposite is true of Brutus.” Decisions taken by the pair turn out to be disastrous. “Into the vacuum they have created come much more ruthless men, which is exactly what has happened all over Africa,” Doran noted.

Theo Ogundipe and cast. Photo: Kwame Lestrade

The production’s look mixes ancient and modern. For instance, in an African capital, the equivalent
of the Roman Forum—a public space for political and celebratory events—is likely to be a football stadium. Michael Vale’s design combines the two. While the cast wears modern clothes, ceremonial dress in many African countries is often a flowing robe quite similar in effect to a toga; the costumes suggest both.

The Forum is the setting for a most extraordinary scene of popular manipulation: the speeches of
Brutus and Mark Antony over the dead Caesar. It is followed by the gruesome mob killing of Cinna
the poet with a burning tire “necklace” once seen in South African assassinations.

Shakespeare was himself quietly drawing parallels with his own dangerous time. While it was forbidden to discuss the question of who would succeed the aging Elizabeth I, the audience in 1599 would have understood immediately the concerns of those surrounding Caesar. Greg Doran’s African Julius Caesar illuminates the same fear of insecurity and civil unrest for our own times.

Heather Neill is a freelance theater writer and critic with a special interest in Shakespeare. Reprinted from March 2013 BAMbill.

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