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In the last gallery space for the current British Museum’s Shakespeare: Staging the World exhibit, only one item is on display. Even amongst the beauty, depth, and breadth of the exhibit, this particular piece is by far the most resonating and moving item. Nicknamed the Robben Island Bible, this cheap copy of Shakespeare was 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,Image

The valiant never taste death but once.

 It is especially fitting then that as part of 2012 World Shakespeare Festival, the Royal Shakespeare Company has reimagined Julius Caesar set in modern Africa (actual time period and country purposefully ambiguous) with a stellar all black cast. From the large stone façade steps, indicative of an older temple refashioned as a public civic space to the house band “The Vibes of March” (who sat on the steps and played as townsfolk musicians, and also played after the show in the lobby) with a lovely Afro-Caribbean beat (percussion, kora, mbira, guitar, bass, and saxophones), to the constant presence of townspeople about their daily routines, the details recreated a flourishing African city in the space of Stratford-upon-Avon.

The play felt current, relevant, and poignant in this setting. Julius Caesar is a charismatic, larger than life leader. His turning down of the crown (three times, and offstage) indicates a benevolent war leader, and yet there is a real sense that his charm may hide the same sort of tyranny examined in The Last King of Scotland.  Seasoned RSC vet Jeffrey Kissoon nicely straddles the line between promising progressive leader and possible despotic dictator. He looks “fat” and “sleek-headed” (and even a bit sleazy and reminiscent of other well-dressed dictators) in his white suited clothing and tassled fly swatter, contrasting wonderfully with the “lean and hungry” Cassius, played with energy and paranoia (which only increases exponentially as the play progresses) by Cyril Niri. While the latter’s hatred and envy of Caesar is evident (and Caesar knowingly brushes him off coldly while greeting the rest of his political friends) and marks him early as regicidal villain, Kissoon’s Caesar remains a wonderfully ambiguous character who dies before we can ever learn what sort of political leader he really is.

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Brutus, played by Paterson Joseph, oscillated between loyal subject and coldly rational conspirator, deftly displaying the depth of Brutus’ despair over his decision. His funerary oration was heartfelt and moving, but this Brutus seemed convinced early on that Caesar needed to be deposed, even though it was quite obvious he never trusted Cassius. After Caesar’s death, as the military leader attempting to maintain order and continue to defend his decision, 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. RSC Associate Artist Ray Fearon may well have been the sexiest Mark Antony since Marlon Brando (RSC really needs to do a production of Antony and Cleopatra with Fearon), but he was so young, high strung, and headstrong in earlier scenes that it was nice to see the slow crescendo of his rhetoric and passion at Caesar’s funeral.

This is a man’s play, but Adjoa Andoh as Portia and Ann Ogbomo as Calpurnia both wonderfully acted 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 travesty of boy soldiers, we see Lucius struggle to learn how to handle firearms, and eventually, he bravely holds the sword to dispatch his master.

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.  The latter also works well as armies and factions are formed, broken, and reconstituted by the different leaders left after Caesar’s assignation.  In another familiar and topical depiction, we see Caesar’s statue toppled by the people.

This production, directed by Gregory Doran, who also directed the RSC’s all-black production of The Tempest, is incredibly powerful and politically relevant.  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. Although he would not be released for another 23 years (and then elected president just a few years after 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.

 

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