“It was the worst show I’ve ever seen in my life,” a little too loudly said the man sitting behind me in the Gene Frankel Theatre the other night as we waited for a performance to begin. “King Lear, set in the 1970s, with disco. Lear just should not be on roller skates. He’s too old.”
Thankful I hadn’t had to sit through that travesty, I forgot about the overheard conversation until I was waiting last night for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar to unfold at the BAM Harvey Theater. Director Gregory Doran, the RSC’s new Artistic Director, has set Shakespeare’s great Roman tragedy in present-day West Africa with an all-black cast and an onstage band playing African music. The production, which debuted at RSC in 2012 and holds court in Brooklyn until April 28, is a thrilling spectacle proving, if proof is needed, that there’s re-imagining Shakespeare – and then there’s re-imagining Shakespeare.
The actors speak with African accents, some quite thick and at times hard to understand. But the freshness that these voices impart to this well-trodden text far outweighs any disadvantage. Indeed the effect is nothing short of revelatory; I felt I was seeing an astounding new work rather than a 400-year-old classic that brought us some of the most famous lines ever written in English. Almost without a break the production maintains elevated levels of both energy and nuance, seemingly without effort. From the vigorous introductory celebration scene sprawling over the stage as you enter, with live music and dance and shouts of “Caesar!”, through to the famous murder scene (“Et tu, Brute?”), Marc Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen” exhortation to the crowd, the battlefield scenes, and the tragic ending, the cast, hoi polloi and nobles alike, lives wholly embedded in this superbly manufactured and fully realized fictionalized world.
The fate of the ancient Roman Republic is in the balance. Julius Caesar’s (Jeffery Kissoon) ever more reluctant refusals of the crown aren’t enough for the driven Cassius (Cyril Nri), who persuades a hesitant, inwardly torn Marcus Brutus (Paterson Joseph) to lead a plot to murder Caesar. A parallel persuasion scene of an entirely different flavor stands out as one of the production’s most theatrically amazing, as another co-conspirator, Decius Brutus (Andrew French), overcomes Caesar’s qualms about going to the Senate on the Ides of March. He’s been warned to stay home by the Soothsayer (Theo Ogundipe) – here a tall, trance-ritual figure dusted in ghostly white powder – and again by his fearful wife Calpurnia (Samantha Lawson). But Decius’s masterful cozening of the great leader, brought to delicious life by French, sets the plot in motion. Marc Antony’s (Ray Fearon) speech, the epitome of sarcasm in English literature, is another high point:
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honorable man.
No play of Shakespeare’s could be more relevant to both recent history and current world politics. “[C]ry out, / ‘Liberty, freedom, and enfranchisement!’” Cassius urges triumphantly after the great murder is accomplished; but only a few scenes later tribal conflict is threatening to tear the nation apart as the conspirators’ forces do battle with those of Marc Antony, first for the backing of the citizenry, then for military victory. (It is only in these last, dusty battlefield scenes that the transposed setting becomes a little jarring, as men wearing modern-day fatigues and carrying guns start pulling out their daggers to comport with the action of the text.)
In a production full of glowingly realized personalities, it is the outsized and achingly sympathetic personality of Marcus Brutus that centers the play. Doran’s direction brings the close, even passionate soul-brother friendship of Brutus and Cassius into high relief, to the point where their post-assassination argument feels like the critical moment in the breakup of a marriage between two people we love. The depth of this bond might help explain Brutus’ ability to keep it together upon learning his wife Portia (portrayed in an almost too titanic performance by Adjoa Andoh) has died horribly; nevertheless Joseph’s Brutus conveys, with loud words and quiet ones, big speeches and clipped ones, the edge of emotion he’s riding, and not only then.