The Royal Shakespeare Company is renowned for its innovative re-imaginings of Shakespeare’s work, and this summer they have taken on one of the Bard’s greatest political plays, Julius Caesar. Actor Jude Owusu, playing the part of Cinna the poet in the play, tells us more.
Focusing on the true events of Roman history, Julius Caesar is a gripping tale of conspiracy and assassination; friendship and betrayal. While the RSC have stayed true to these themes, the company has also added a twist. “This particular adaptation is set in Africa,” Owusu explains. While giving a fresh perspective on the classic, this setting highlights the political issues we face today: “If you look back at the history of Africa it’s littered with despotic kings, people that cling onto power for a bit too long – there’s the classic case of Mugabe in the Middle East and at the moment you have the problems in Syria and the Arab Spring – all these different things just seem to make the play so relevant and so necessary”.
However, while the concerns of the play are reflected in modern African politics, Owusu argues, “I don’t particularly think it was meant to make a political point, because you could set Julius Caesar anywhere that’s had a conflict and it would just be incredibly apt”. Instead, the decision to set the play in Africa has other influences. “I think one of the main reasons behind it was that Greg Doran, the director of the piece, is a massive fan of Nelson Mandela”. Owusu shares a story that he and the other actors were told in rehearsals: “The complete works of Shakespeare were smuggled in to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, and all of the different prisoners highlighted a passage that was really poignant to them and that really inspired them, and under Nelson Mandela’s name he’d signed a passage from Julius Caesar where Caesar says: “Cowards die many times before their death, The valiant never taste of death but once”. So it’s from that inspiration that Doran really wanted to set the play in Africa”. As well as this, “a lot of Africans find Julius Caesar to be their African Shakespeare play – of all the collection of his works, it’s the one that most Africans really find tangible and they can really relate it to their lives”.
One of the ways in which the audience is transported to Africa is through the live music incorporated into the production. “The music is a massive part of the whole piece, it gives a real sense of Africa. The group is called The Vibes of March, which is a play on words of the “Ides of March” Caesar is warned about. They play loads of original African instruments – they’ve even got an unexploded bomb shell they use as an instrument as well. So there’s just a wonderful soundscape created”. The use of a bomb shell again evokes the conflicts Africa faces, not to mention the giant statue that dominates the set. For Owusu, “it reminds me whenever I see it of – do you remember the image of Saddam Hussein’s statue being toppled? It’s kind of similar to that. It’s a statue of Caesar, and during Brutus’s moment when he’s revisited by the ghost of Caesar, the statue collapses”. Nothing quite screams tyrannous dictator like a giant statue of yourself. As well as this, the costumes try and give a sense of modern African fashion, as well as issues of class. “I think the aim behind the costumes was to give a sense of the different hierarchies within the country. So you’ve got the likes of Caesar wearing very smart African suits, which are actually kind of half-western suits, and for the plebeians you’ve got just normal, functioning African attire, so they’ve taken into consideration the heat and humidity of Africa”.
While these contrivances of clothes and music strive to bring Africa to the theatre, the production also features an all-black cast. “That’s not to say there aren’t any white people in locations in Africa – but in terms of African hierarchy, government and things like that, I think it is predominantly black, and in Julius Caesar there are a lot of senate scenes”. For Owusu, who would hesitate to see a play purely on the basis that it had a cast of one particular group, this casting can definitely be seen to have positive effects. “As a black person and as a young black actor, I do think there is some merit and some worth in having productions that show the audience a representation of themselves, because I think that’s what inevitably inspires somebody. If you inspire someone it’s not someone who’s a superhuman doing something incredible, it’s inspiring because it’s somebody like you, somebody similar to you doing something extraordinary, and that’s what encourages and inspires. So say if you had an all female version of Julius Caesar, on the one hand it could be wonderful because it would inspire loads of young girls to go ‘wow, that person’s just like me, I’d like to do something like this’”. Despite this, Owusu maintains that the colour of the actors’ skin is not relevant to the art of theatre. “I don’t think it’s an issue at all, I mean I don’t ever go and watch a Chekhov play and go ‘oh my god, that was an all white cast’ – it doesn’t really matter, it’s just what it is”.
Another way in which the RSC has breathed new life into Julius Caesar is in its use of volunteer actors for the chorus during the play’s run in Stratford-upon-Avon. “They were fantastic!” enthuses Owusu, who feels they not only invigorated the play, but also the professional actors they were working alongside. “It was marvellous to have them there because there were so many of them, and they gave a real sense of vibrancy. Their energy reminded the actors that what they’re doing is a great job. Sometimes when you’re doing your dream it feels like a job, and to see their enthusiasm and their love of working with the RSC was just inspiring, and I think it rubbed off on everyone else”. Unfortunately, the company won’t be able to use volunteers while performing in London. “I think it was down to the space of the theatre, we just couldn’t fit them on the stage. And I think it was something to do with Equity as well – you’d have to pay all of them money to be on the stage and I don’t think that was in the budget”.
While the London volunteers may not be able to live their dream of performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company, for Owusu this dream has become a reality. Fresh on the scene, having graduated just two years ago, this is Osuwu’s first time performing with the company, and so far he has been thrilled with the experience. “It can be a little nerve-wracking working with these people, but actually the higher up you go the fewer egos there are. Everyone’s been so professional, and it’s been fantastic”. In his first part with the company, he plays the small but significant role of Cinna the poet. “Cinna the poet is a wonderful character. He leaves his house because he has a dream, and in his dream he’s having dinner with Caesar. He turns to the audience and says ‘but that dream is slightly twisted, it doesn’t feel right. I have no reason why I’m even outside here, but there’s this thing that’s leading me forth outside my house’, and it’s that curiosity that he has that unfortunately leads him into the mob who then kill him”.
While his character dies within a short number of lines, Owusu argues that “it’s a beautiful piece because just in the scene before that, Mark Anthony has turned the mob around using speech, the power of rhetoric, and Shakespeare ironically in the following scene allows the mob to murder a man of words, a man who uses speech”. Like the rest of the play, the scene with Cinna the poet reverberates with modern concerns, both political and day-to-day. “I remember watching the London riots, and there was this one image of this guy on a bike who was attacked. He actually had nothing to do with the riots, he was just minding his own business, and there was this immediacy of ‘it could be anything it could be anyone’, he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time”. It’s through imagery such as this that we realise how relevant Shakespeare still is in our time – a relevancy that the RSC brings to the fore in this production.
Julius Caesar plays at the Noel Coward Theatre until 15th September and then tours the UK until the end of October, visiting cities including Norwich, Salford and Cardiff. For more information and to buy tickets, visit www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/julius-caesar.
Image credit: RSC