On Sunday, May 5, I had the opportunity to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) production of Julius Caesar in Columbus, Ohio at the Southern Theatre. This production (May 1-5) was the culmination of a short U.S. visit, starting with a run in New York City at Brooklyn Academy of Music (April 15-28). Ohio State University (OSU) has a unique pedagogical partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and this performance was the first full-scale RSC production to come to the university.
In a play filled with superstitions, omens, prophecies, and ghosts, Cassius may give the most prophetic vision of all: the afterlife of Shakespeare’s great Roman tragedy. At the end of the first half of the play (Act 3.1), Caesar lies dead on the ground and his assassins wash their hands in his blood. Cassius, the lead co-conspirator, claims,
“How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown!”
In this dynamic and poignant RSC production, the “accents yet unknown” are Eastern African-inflected dialects and “states unborn” are nascent African nation-states threatened by emerging dictatorships. Set in a modern era and in an unnamed African country, the lack of specificity–within the last forty or so years, the nonspecific country–allows for parallels to be drawn between many different African countries over the last half-century.
RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran (in a roundtable discussion at OSU earlier in the week) explains that this is “Shakespeare’s African play” and cites Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, translated Julius Caesar into Swahili. OSU Professor of African American and African Studies Lupenga Mphande describes Julius Caesar (alongside Merchant of Venice and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress) as an essential text studied by South African schoolboys as part of the focus on the three “C”s: commerce (Merchant), civilization (Caesar), and Christianity (Progress).
Most important for Doran’s production was his meeting with Nelson Mandela, when he learned about the Robben Island Bible, a cheap copy of Shakespeare passed amongst and read by South African anti-apartheid activists imprisoned at Robben Island Prison. The book’s owner, Sonny Venkatrathnam, asked his fellow inmates to each mark his favorite passage and sign it. Nelson Mandela chose a passage from Julius Caesar. Despite bad omens and against his frightened wife’s wishes, Caesar is determined to go to the Forum the following morning:
“Cowards die many times before their deaths,
The valiant never taste death but once.”
When Mandela chose his passage and dated it December 16, 1977—the anniversary of The Battle of Blood River, the defeat of the Zulus by the Afrikaners—he reclaimed that date as not a day of defeat, but of active resistance. After his release from prison 23 more years and his election to president, Mandela reclaimed and renamed the holiday as “Reconciliation Day.” He, too, knew the contemporary political urgency of Julius Caesar, and that the passage that Mandela chose so many years ago—expressing courage, defiance, resoluteness, and grace—is a fitting summary of his own ideologies and experiences.
The production beautifully blends time periods and nation-states seamlessly–Caesar’s Rome, Shakespeare’s England, and different modern African nation-states. The Roman Forum becomes a weathered soccer stadium in distressed concrete, and the citizens sell spray-painted Caesar memorabilia while wearing the familiar red, black, and green of the Pan-African flag, while an Afro-Caribean band plays before the opening action on traditional instruments–percussion, kora, mbira, guitar, bass, and saxophones–led by musical director Akintayo Akinbode. The elements of magic and prophecy might feel out of place in other modern dress productions, but the ever present shaman-figure of the Soothsayer painted with white mud and frenetically dancing to conjure divine spirits (danced and acted by the haunting Theo Ogundipe) effectively brings in both elements of magical realism and comments on Western ideas of African countries as developing nations held back by superstitious and tribal beliefs. Poor Cinna the Poet is brutally murdered by “necklacing,” a tire filled with gasoline is placed around the victim’s torso, a method used in South Africa to punish blacks accused of supporting apartheid.
A large statue of Caesar looms over all of the action and the stage, and in a pivotal moment, is pulled down in a recreation of other political figures and ideologies removed in a burst of iconoclasm: statues of Lenin after the fall of the Soviet Union, and more recently, the dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s statue. Of course, the language is also there in Cassius’ speech, who grumbles about Caesar becoming a Colossus and the senators reduced to “petty men [who] walk under his huge legs.”
Caesar is Muammar Gaddafi, Idi Amin, Mobutu Sese Seko, Robert Mugabe, or any other charismatic leader who become ruthless dictator. Played by seasoned RSC vet Jeffrey Kissoon, Caesar nicely straddles the line between promising progressive leader and possible despotic dictator. He looks “fat” and “sleek-headed” in his white suited clothing and tassled fly swatter, which he uses to great effect to dismiss Cassius as an annoying insect. Yet, Kissoon also plays up Caesar’s frailties–his deaf left ear, his (or Calpurnia’s infertility) sterility, his aging body, especially next to the trim figure of Marc Antony in a white track suit. Kissoon’s Caesar remains a wonderfully ambiguous character who dies before we can ever learn what sort of political leader he really is, but by then the cult of personality and deification has begun.
Greg Doran notes that the play is always remembered as “broken-backed,” that after Caesar’s murder, the action slows down, but he notes that the “play has an urgency which must take it through an entire arc.” This production actually becomes more riveting in the second half. After Caesar’s murder, the events of the second half play out like a contemporary political thriller. This play, then, is not so much about Caesar’s assassination as it is the power vacuum caused by his death, and the potential candidates’ battles, treachery, and internal conflicts to become the next charismatic and despotic leader.
Brutus, played by Paterson Joseph, does not seem so much “with himself as war” concerning Caesar’s assassination as he does seem at war with first Marc Antony, then Cassius, and not until the end of the play, with himself and his tragic mistakes. His funerary oration is heartfelt and moving, but this Brutus seems convinced early on that Caesar needs to be deposed. His vicious attack on Caesar (his “most unkindest cut of all” is a cruel undercut to Caesar’s groin) belies the stoicism and rational side of Brutus. After Caesar’s death, as the military leader attempting to maintain order and continue to defend his decisions, Joseph displays the wrongheaded “noble nature” of Brutus which always veers from the mean to the extreme: from resoluteness to stubbornness, and from his conviction that Caesar must die to save the nation to his pride and guilt which leads to his own suicide.
The “lean and hungry” Cassius, played with energy and paranoia (which only increases exponentially as the play progresses) by Cyril Nri, depicts his character as cowardly, envious, and easily bribed. In the earlier scenes, Caesar knowingly brushes him Cassius’ flattery coldly while greeting the rest of his political friends with warmth and vigor, and Cassius responds like a petulant and ignored child. Yet, as the play progresses, he oscillates between cowardly regicide and loyal friend. In the tent scene (Act 4.2), Cassius shows real concern for his friend Brutus and tears up after learning of Portia’s suicide, and his own suicide is depicted as not a cowardly decision, but rather a loyal act.
Cassius tries to goad Brutus into killing Marc Antony, too, and for good cause. RSC Associate Artist Ray Fearon’s Mark Antony is possibly the most Machiavellian character in a group of conspirators, murderers, and “butchers.” At first, he appears only as Caesar’s hanger-on, a playboy jock, but his funerary oration is electric and persuasive, and he rejoices when he has whipped the plebeians into a chaotic frenzy. When he meets with Lepidus and Octavius to form the triumphant triumvirate (and already plotting Lepidus’ demise), he sends the former to retrieve Caesar’s real will and shreds the copy of the will he had read at Caesar’s funeral, causing a loud gasp in the audience. This Marc Antony defeats Cassius and Brutus, but we already sense the tensions between Antony and Octavius that will lead to their own battles shortly after this play ends, leading to more civil war, more bloodshed, and more changes in regime.
This is a man’s play, but if there are moments of redemption and humanity, it is embodied not in any of the political leaders, but rather in women and children. Adjoa Andoh as Portia and Ann Ogbomo as Calpurnia both wonderfully act their parts as the strong, brave, and ultimately ignored wives of Brutus and Caesar, respectively. In one of the most subtle, and yet effective of roles, the young Simon Manyonda (in his RSC debut) plays a doggedly loyal and boyish Lucius. Manyonda’s Lucius, uninterested in war or even his household duties as servant, falls asleep peacefully the night Brutus cannot sleep as he determines to kill Caesar; later, in a powerful allusion to boy soldiers, we see Lucius struggle to learn how to handle firearms, and eventually, he bravely holds the sword to dispatch his master. Like Mandela, he learns over the course of the play that ”Cowards die many times before their deaths, / The valiant never taste death but once.”
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