Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Julius Caesar Review

Julius Caesar
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

I have previously seen two productions of Julius Caesar. One was the 2006 Complete Works Festival production by Sean Holmes, which I can only remember vaguely. The other was Lucy Baileys 2009 production, which allowed style to overshadow substance through the constant use of video projections. However I was excited to see the play being set in an African setting, under the guidance of my favourite Shakespeare director, Gregory Doran.

In comparison to the 2009 version, this production was character driven, and the actors were excellent in their roles. Jeffrey Kisson presents an old and overweight Caesar. Whilst tired and weary, his Caesar is a firm and proud leader who looks to become king. Ray Fearon meanwhile was the highlight of the production as the charismatic Mark Antony. At first he is shown as a laid back, young man in casual clothes. Yet his "Friends. Romans, Countrymen" speech was ferocious, and together with the passionate chanting from the crowds the speech was charged with grief and rage.

Paterson Joseph gave a very interesting performance as Brutus. In showing this complex character, his Brutus seemed to have personality traits that were similar to Antony and Caesar, the combination of which would prove fatal for him. Like Antony he was charismatic and easy-going. He wore casual clothing which contrasted Cassius' military style uniform. Yet like Julius Caesar his Brutus was a proud one, who spoke with brashness and joviality, especially when he decides to let Antony live. Even before the Battle of Philippi, he walks around in a vest and acts with brazenness when Cassius angrily confronts him. From the very start one wonders whether Cassius would have been the better leader for the conspiracy.

Elsewhere, Adjou Andoh played a strong willed Portia. Joseph Mydell was an eccentric Casca, who hints at Caesar's true motivations when he describes the leader's reaction to being offered the crown. Theo Ogundipe plays a more prominent role as the Soothsayer. At times he comes on during scenes that do not include him, in order to hint at the events that have yet to happen. His voice sounded unearthly as spoke "Beware the Ides of March", to which the crowd clicked their fingers as though mentioning this unfavourable day was bad enough. There is a sense of spiritualism around this character, who is covered in chalkish paint and wears traditional clothing. He even observes Caesar's assassination, and as the scene leads up to the moment he looks up at the sky and his body seemed to pulse intensely. Once Caesar is dead, he fell to the ground and became almost animal-like.

Whilst the set never takes over in this production, it was very impressive. The stage is laden with stone slabs and it reminds one of the ruins of Ancient Rome. Beyond a flight of stone steps, a large statue of Julius Caesar stands before a wall of metal sheets and dominates the background. I must say though that apart from the occasional statement, the production never had a lot to say on it's African setting. If there was one thing I would give Lucy Bailey's production props for, is that it always had something to say about Ancient Rome and the way it manifests itself in violence, even if it did overshadow the acting.

What is great about this production however, is that they integrated Julius Caesar into this new setting so well. Before the production even starts, the citizens of Rome are seen out on the streets in colourful T-shirts, waving banners, lying on the ground fanning themselves in the heat, and dancing to some African music, as they celebrate Caesar's victory over Pompey. The whole show felt as if the play has been set in Africa all this time. Praise to the members of a band, aptly named The Vibes of March, for providing some excellent musical pieces, particularly after the performance when they came into the foyer to play some more music.

Out of the three I have now seen, this is the best Julius Caesar production so far. It was not a thought-provoking production, yet it did well in setting the play in Africa to the point where it looked genuine. Attention was given to the characters and the actors did wonders playing their roles, especially Ray Fearon as Mark Antony. This production is worthy of a Top Price.

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