“Men, at some times, are masters of their fate”
In the near-overwhelming deluge of Shakespeare love on the BBC which is about to reach its crescendo with the debut of the Hollow Crown season, the decision to film and broadcast the RSC’s current production of Julius Caesar seems a rather perverse one. The show, an all-black adaptation relocated to an unspecified modern African state by director Gregory Doran, has yet to complete its Stratford-upon-Avon run and will embark on a major UK tour including a residency in the West End’s Noël Coward Theatre, so it seems a little counter-intuitive to present it on our televisions – I only hope this does not impact on ticket sales (though given it played on BBC4, one does wonder what viewing figures were actually like…).
Of course, watching a play on screen is not the same as watching it live and though this starts with the opening scene recorded at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the first transition cleverly moves us into location filming and so the production gains a filmic quality which makes use of varied locations, including a return to the RST, direct addresses to camera, ‘found’ cellphone footage and voiceovers to really translate the theatrical interpretation into something new for the screen, as opposed to simply replicating it. The relocation is a simple, yet powerfully effective one, the overthrowing of a military dictator by less than honourable types is something which will seemingly always have currency in the modern world, but more importantly the concept is worn lightly with little shoe-horning necessary to make it work. Instead it flows beautifully and naturally to great effect.
This is mainly due to the stunning performances of Paterson Joseph’s Brutus and Cyril Nri’s Cassius. In Joseph’s hands, Brutus becomes a charismatic political wheeler-dealer, a hopeless self-involved spinner whose initial dazzling qualities are laid increasingly bare as he preens and gaffes and blunders and squanders his way to ruin. Nri’s Cassius is a steadier, fiercely intellectual figure, burning with indignation in the face of Caesar’s snubs and the real brains behind the operation to depose their dictatorial leader. The design never lets us forget how despotic Caesar is, his looming statue dominates the marketplace on the stage, and Jeffery Kissoon’s white-suited portrayal brims with cold cruelty whilst recalling any number of African leaders.
The strength and depth of the cast is also just excellent (and dare I say it, pleasing to see, given the oft-reported dearth of opportunities for Black British actors). Adjoa Andoh is just scintillating as Portia, a devastating portrayal who lingers long after her short screen time; Simon Manyonda’s sleepy Lucius a real presence throughout the play who gains his own poignant character arc; Joseph Mydell’s Casca an intelligent manipulator over the urinals; Ray Fearon’s Mark Antony, an impassioned orator but no less of a canny operator in securing his own position.
My instinct, when it was first announced that this play would be screened on TV, was initially that I no longer needed to see it at theatre as I could tick it off the list whilst watching it from my living room. But having sat through it, I cannot wait to go and see it live now (and I hope others feels similarly inspired) – an excellent piece of work all around.