I have never been to a press night with such hoardes of paparazzi as those waiting outside the theatre when I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar. Yet, far from being over-hyped, the production proved that the excitement surrounding the Noel Coward Theatre that night was richly deserved.
Set against the backdrop of what appears to be the ruins of a Roman temple, the stage lights reveal a modern day senate house that is collapsing, with steel bars breaking through the reinforced concrete. An ominous statue of Julius Caesar stands facing away from the audience, not knowing what is to come.
Directed by Gregory Doran, this production is set in an undisclosed country in contemporary Africa, with a cast of Black and African actors. As the program notes, this production has ‘dark contemporary echoes in modern Africa’. In Caesar’s Rome, attempting to move from monarchial rule to democracy, such parallels are clear, and it is the production’s exploration of these that make it so engaging. The production demonstrates with great effect that the difficulties in setting up a functioning political infrastructure – let alone one by the people, for the people – are as relevant now as they were in Ancient Rome. As the idealised democracy of the Senate is revealed to be sordid and envious, we see how easily the citizens of Rome will come to be convinced by Caesar’s fellow senators that their revered leader is corrupt and weak. Jeffery Kisson’s Caesar, painfully unaware of the fate that awaits him, is eerily reminiscent of the dictators and corrupt military leaders making headlines for their unjust rule over young African countries.
Doran’s production is backed up by outstanding acting. In addition to Kisson as Caesar, I must mention Ray Fearon’s Mark Antony, which was flawless. Fearon’s delivery of Caesar’s eulogy was breathtaking; the control and passion in his portrayal of Caesar’s ally demonstrating a seemingly effortless understanding of the wonderful text.
The show has a limited run in London before it begins a national tour. I must recommend you make your way to the Noel Coward Theatre while you can, to see this thought-provoking take on one of Shakespeare’s most profound and current historical plays.
Julius Caesar is playing at the Noel Coward Theatre until 15 September. For more information and tickets, see the RSC website.