Gregory Doran's production of Julius Caesar for the World Shakespeare Festival takes the familiar, famous Rome-based story and places in it modern day Africa. From the very start, the stage is full of African rhythms, music and noises, from a band wittily calling themselves the Vibes of March.
The African setting works well. In a part of the world where life can be cheap and myths and magic more real, the play's despotic dictator, patriarchal society, violence, portents, dreams and soothsayers fit. Anyone who's seen The Last King of Scotland will recognise the errie smiling terror of a post-colonial despot: partly ridiculous, partly terrifying.
Performed by a gifted ensemble of black British actors, the rhythms of Shakespeare's text are further enhanced by the lilting African accents. (There's a sample below.) The text sounds both fresh and fitting, with the Bard's many references of lions, shackles and slavery layering more meaning onto the action. After the autocrat's assassination, Brutus' plea that the mob consider "Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men?" rings with significance.
Expertly played by Paterson Joseph, this is as nuanced a Brutus as we've ever seen. Human, principled, misled, flawed, both scared and supremely confident, Joseph brings all his incredible interpretation skills to the role. This is a rounded portrayal, perfectly worthy of Mark Antony's last assessment that "the elements (are) So mix'd in him that Nature might stand up And say to all the world 'This was a man!'"
Michael Vale's subtle designs deserve a mention too: yes, there's a somewhat by-the-numbers dictator statue at the back, but happily its significance isn't overplayed. Instead, the simple framing crumbling concrete structure, part ancient monument, part football stadium works brilliantly, seamlessly changing from house to alleyway to podium to tent.
Our only quibble is with the use of black togas for Caesar's assassination scene. Overly heavy, distracting and clearly uncomfortable for the actors, it seems a shame that after so many fresh takes on this familiar play (and some excellent costumes by Nicola Fitchett elsewhere) that this cliché creeps on stage. Perhaps we have to wait until Doran is more than Artistic Director Designate before the RSC's rulebook is totally rewritten. On the strength of this show, it'll certainly be an exciting few years for one of our favourite theatre companies.
Julius Caesar is on at the Noel Coward Theatre until 15 September, when it heads off on tour around the rest of the UK. Tickets cost £15-£49.50, but there are various offers around. Visit www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/julius-caesar for more information. Londonist saw the show with a press ticket provided by the RSC.