In a bold and illuminating move the RSC’s latest production of JULIUS CAESAR sets the Bard’s Roman tragedy in Africa sometime in the last fifty years (as part of the current World Shakespeare Festival 2012) and it’s not as odd a decision as you might initially think.  Director Gregory Doran, who’ll be taking over from Michael Boyd in heading up the Royal Shakespeare Company from September, uses an all black British cast to create his vision, including Jeffrey Kissoon, Paterson Joseph, Ray Fearon, Cyril Nri, Ann Ogbomo and Adjoa Andoh.

Now, you might say, a Roman play in Africa?  But this is actually a marriage made in a Shakespearian heaven.  After all the Bard and Africa already have some long established links.  Nelson Mandela is a renowned Shakespeare fan, and he even annotated the Robben Island copy of JULIUS CAESAR when incarcerated, while Tanzania’s president Julius Nyerere had the play translated into Swahili.  And it’s certainly impossible to watch this new interpretation without thinking of some recent infamous African leaders:  Idi Amin; Mobuto Sese Seko; Robert Mugabe.

And let’s face it, JULIUS CAESAR is all about power: who’s got it, who wants it, who needs it.  It’s set in the dying days of the Roman republic and covers the historical assassination of Caesar by some of those closest to him, and the political and social chaos after.  The real Caesar was murdered in 44BC, but Shakespeare’s conspirators, led by Brutus and Cassius, are keen to distance themselves from this act of murder, instead hoping they’ll be remembered as socially minded “sacrificers” who stepped in to stop one man taking too much power, rather than “butchers”.  They follow a kind of Star Trek philosophy (the good of the many outweigh the good of the few or one) but as a wise man once said, absolute power corrupts absolutely, so it’s hard to know who to trust.  If any of you remember the fantastic BBC series I, CLAUDIUS starring Derek Jacobi, this play covers the events just before Augustus (that’s Brian Blessed) ended up as the first Roman Emperor (Augustus even has a small role in the second half of the play although he’s know as Octavius).

Jeffrey Kissoon’s Caesar is a real politician.  Dressed impeccably in white and brandishing a fly swat he moves sinuously between jovial matey-ness and understated threat in his register.  But we never really get to know the real Caesar.  Who is this man, really?  Benevolent father to a nation?  Smiling dictator?  Or just a man, corrupted by power?  Kissoon keeps his Caesar ambiguous – it’s up to us to decide whether the conspirators are right.  Not that we can criticise this directorial decision; the play might be called THE TRAGEDY OF JULIUS CAESAR (to give its full title) but it’s hard to emphasise with or understand a man who is killed half way through the play.  Instead the focus is clearly on Brutus – on his tragedy and what he has to lose (a lot as it turns out).  Glimpses of his home life show a close relationship with his wife Portia (played by a ballsy Adjoa Andoh) and servant (treated almost like a son) unlike Caesar’s careful and distanced performance at home.  Paterson Joseph is excellent here as Brutus and plays the role with real warmth.  In a play where we don’t always know who to identify with Brutus is our rock and we implicitly trust him, even if we’re not always sure he’s doing the right thing.

Former Corrie actor Ray Fearon is a very physical and muscular Mark Antony – beloved of Caesar and loyal to the end.  The highlight of any production of JULIUS CAESAR (after the murder of course) is Antony’s address to the mob over Caesar’s blood-soaked corpse, when he incites the mob to violence and brings about civil war.  Fearon excels here, driving the Romans (and audience) to allow ‘sweet Caesar’s wounds, poor poor dumb mouths’ to speak in Shakespeare’s most famous scene about the power of language and rhetoric.  But there’s a subtle sub-text in Fearon’s performance; is he simply after revenge or is he using the opportunity to gain power himself?  Did he really love Caesar?  Is it all for show?

It’s a punchy performance with a running time of around 2h15 which helps keep the momentum, more so as it runs straight through without the traditional interval after the third act.  This decision makes perfect dramatic sense (although not urinary – there was a stampede to the toilets almost as soon as the last lines were uttered) as after Caesar’s murder in act three the play can sometimes lose momentum.

The murder scene itself is suitably horrific.  The sight of the conspirators clustering round Caesar taking turns stabbing him resonates on a gut level, and the way he embraces his murderer, Brutus, is chilling.  Soon they gather round like vultures, taking turns stabbing his dying body.  The impact is heightened here by the lack of stage blood in the initial stabbing.  Uh-oh, they’ve missed a trick here, I thought.  No they hadn’t – the stage blood duly comes out once Caesar’s dead and the conspirators gather round to misguidedly bathe their hands in it to proclaim their good intentions (whose bright idea was that?).  After the clinical and bloodless murder to have a sudden deluge of red reveals the extent to which they’ve gone – and how they won’t be forgiven by history.  After all, Dante held back a place in Satan’s mouth for both Brutus and Cassius in his epic poem THE DIVINE COMEDY, alongside Judas Iscariot.

The costume and set design all work to really cement the African setting.  Military uniforms jostle with contemporary African street-wear and more traditional garments, Nike high-tops sit with kaftans and the soothsayer is transformed perfectly into an African witch doctor, bare-chested and wielding a ritualistic stick.  The whole set resembles a football stadium or amphitheatre reminding us how much of a performance politics is, while a huge statue of Caesar himself overshadows all the citizens.   And the accents – it has to be said, Shakespeare sounds amazing in an African lilt.  Those lines of iambic pentameter slip and slide off the tongue, the rhythm lending itself to the nuances of sound.  Nothing is stilted here, everything flows and you can lose yourself in the beat of the language.

When Shakespeare’s transposed to a modern setting the effect can be hit and miss (and I’ve seen some misses).  But Doran’s JULIUS CAESAR is a strong, intelligent and triumphant performance which proves that Shakespeare continues to be completely relevant today.  Don’t miss it.

You can catch JULIUS CAESAR on its nationwide tour running from July to October. Check the RSC website for details.