April 24, 2013

Hailing "Julius Caesar" in a Contemporary Way

Transposing Shakespeare to a different locale or time period no longer earns a director the automatic cool points it once did. In fact, doing so has become almost as ho-hum as a standing ovation at the end of a show

So I'm thrilled to be able to say that it’s been a long time since I’ve experienced the heat and blood of the Bard’s work as intensely as I did while watching the Royal Shakespeare Company’s all-black production of Julius Caesar, which is ending a two-week (and too short) run at BAM’s Harvey Theater this weekend.

Director Gregory Doran has placed the action in a contemporary, but unspecified, African nation and his staging is so visceral and immediate that it almost seems as though Shakespeare had been clairvoyant and intentionally wrote the play to be set there and now. 
Of course it's easy to see the similarities between Ancient Rome, wrestling with its adoration of a strongman leader and its desire for every man to rule his own destiny, and the many African nations now roiled by that same tension. The parallels emerge in ways large and small in this production. 
Its Caesar, who makes his entrance dressed in a casual safari suit and brandishing a leather scepter, displays the volatile mixture of benevolence and menace that calls to mind charismatic despots ranging from Idi Amin to Muammar Gaddafi.  

Meanwhile, the senators who conspire to assassinate Caesar wear the traditional African robes that resemble togas. And the hoi polloi are appeased not with bread and circuses but with drink and lively Afro-pop music, performed by a terrific seven-member band that is playing as theatergoers take their seats and remains onstage to underscore the action throughout the show.  
Acoustics are always tricky at the Harvey.  And so my friend Mary Anne and I, seated towards the back of the orchestra, did have some trouble understanding all the dialog—a task made even more difficult because the actors assume pronounced African accents. And a couple of the players look so similar that it can be difficult to keep track of who is who.

And yet none of that matters. The intense commitment of the actors, the supple lighting and striking set, dominated by a giant statue of Caesar, get the message across loud and clear: there are few heroes in politics. 

The play’s main characters—Caesar, Brutus, Cassius, Mark Antony—are all motivated, like so many political leaders, by both fear and opportunism. Its familiar lines (“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings,” “Cry ‘Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war,” “The evil that men do lives after then; the good is oft interred with their bones.”) resound like dispatches from today's conflict zones.

When all the elements fit together so powerfully, the credit has to go to the director (click hear to listen to his interview with Charlie Rose and to catch a few glimpses of scenes from the show). Doran is in the process of settling in as the new artistic head of the RSC and this production suggests that his tenure could be very cool indeed.

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