There was no better time than the London 2012 Festival for the Royal Shakespeare Company to produce Gregory Doran’s contemporary version of Julius Caesar, as part of the World Shakespeare Festival. This is Shakespeare with a twist: the play has been taken from its original setting in the Ancient Roman senate, and placed in a volatile, modern day African state. For the first time we see Julius Caesar being played by an all-black cast. This attracts modern audiences, and may interest people who do not normally enjoy the traditional versions of Shakespeare’s plays. Strong parallels can be drawn between the conflict in the play, and that of modern countries.
The shining light of the cast was undoubtedly Ray Fearon in his role of Mark Anthony. He was simply brilliant. He delivered the famous ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’ speech with insatiable energy; it was easy to see how he managed to turn the crowd against the conspirators and towards Caesar. Paterson Joseph was also masterful at playing Marcus Brutus. Concerned that Caesar had too much power, Brutus leads a group of noblemen to assassinate him, with the help of Caius Cassius (Cyril Nri). However, this is not just a play concerning politics; there are also prophetic dreams, ghosts and a Soothsayer to add to the intrigue of the play.
While the African dialects add to the African feel of the play, set in a country torn apart by civil war, they do occasionally make the Shakespearean language a bit harder to understand. Nevertheless, this never took away from the excitement of the play, even for those familiar with the play. Another wonderful touch was the band of musicians who played traditional, rustic African instruments. This contrasted harshly with the contemporary violence in the war scenes. The set, lighting and sound effects were subtle, which allowed all the attention to be focused on action and word.
Doran’s Julius Caesar is a poignant and exciting play thanks to both the power of Shakespeare’s poetry and the skill of the actors. Doran successfully turns Ancient Rome into sub-Saharan Africa, and does not lose the play’s messages of power and ambition. Although uprooting Shakespeare’s plays from their original contexts can prove controversial, in our opinion this thrilling production is a must-see for any student or fan of Shakespeare.