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Julius Caesar – New Theatre, Cardiff

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Gregory Doran

Music: Akintayo Akinbode

Reviewer: Barbara Michaels

[Rating:4]

Political intrigue and assassination are thematic in this, one of Shakespeare’s most famous historical plays. Director Gregory Doran sets this contemporary version in Africa, with an all-black cast. Clever lighting casts shadows over a set that is part Coliseum and part football stadium, for which designer Michael Vale deserves an accolade. Bongo drums beat out a rhythm as the play opens with a whirling dervish of a witchdoctor (brilliantly performed by Theo Ogundipe) replacing Shakespeare’s Soothsayer, who predicts Caesar’s imminent demise with her warning to: “Beware the Ides of March.” Brooding over all this, a towering larger-than-life statue of Caesar, later to be toppled when Caesar falls, dominates the stage. Connotations with Saddam Hussein and the Mugabe regime are obvious, proving – if indeed proof were needed – that the corruption and violence of Roman times in which the play was originally set are still applicable in the 21st century.

At the same time, it has to be considered whether or not Shakespeare’s masterpiece is enhanced by the treatment. It must be acknowledged that Doran’s courageous treatment of Shakespeare’s masterpiece works brilliantly. This innovative staging could have misfired, but in showing the relevance to modern life it succeeds also in showcasing what is, after all, one of the main features of Shakespeare’s plays – the language. However, Doran’s use of dialect has resulted in occasional lack of clarity in some of the longer speeches, especially when delivered at speed.

The RSC, no stranger to present-day adaptations of the Bard, has for this production included several actors for whom it is their debut season with the company. In some respects, Julius Caesar could be described as Shakespeare’s finest ensemble play, and without exception, they rise to the challenge in a manner which does them credit. As Caesar, Jeffrey Kissoon, one of those with previous experience with the RSC, conveys both the arrogance of the dictator and his disbelief at the betrayal of his so-called friends, achieving much in what is a relatively small part. Ray Fearon, who plays Mark Antony, has also had experience with the RSC. Fearon shows a bearing and authority in the rôle that allows him to take command of the stage as he stands in blood-stained trousers making an impassioned yet calculating appeal to the crowd in his oration after Caesar’s murder.

As Brutus, Caesar’s closest friend and supporter whose ultimate betrayal calls forth a disbelieving “Et tu, Brute?” (“And you, Brutus?”) from the dying dictator as Brutus slides in the fatal knife, Paterson Joseph tends to shout and caper about too much in the first half of the play, but comes into his own in the later scenes with a sensitive interpretation of the rôle as Brutus begins to have doubts about himself.

As might be expected in a play written in 1599, at a time when plays were written largely for male characters and even the women were played by men, the female rôles are secondary. As Caesar’s wife Calpurnia, Ann Ogbomo is suitably regal, while Adjoa Andow is a sexy Portia. Among the supporting case, mention must be made of Simon Manyonda, who, as a lissom and likeable Lucius, injects a well-balanced touch of humour into an epic tragedy of not only Roman times, but of the world of today.

Runs until October 27th 2012.

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