A black Caesar - a bit of a challenge to conceive... How about a production of Julius Caesar set in post-independence Africa? Well, when in charge is an ace director soaked in Shakespeare, the result can well be a brilliant production with an outstanding cast.
Gregory Doran's production of Julius Caesar ran in RST for the summer season and wowed the audience as it started touring within the UK and abroad. The memorable production just had to be eternalised in some way. In collaboration with RSC, Illuminations filmed the performance to broadcast on BBC and it is now available as a DVD. It was released on 28 November 2012 and is already a success in sales, given the popularity of the live production.
The film brilliantly captures the spirit of the theatre. Some scenes are more cinematic, but the overall ambience is still theatrical. Ray Fearon as Mark Antony is very charismatic, appealing and genuine. His "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech is electrifying. The actor strives to send the message through not only to the Romans and his immediate audience but to all potential ear lenders. With sweat and tears, this Antony is emotional, sensitive and definitive.
Paterson Joseph is equally brilliant as Brutus. His complicated relationship with Cassius is focalised. However, his emotions in the scenes revealing his relationship with Portia and Cassius respectively are not always easily interpretable.
Cyril Nri adds vitality and personality to the character of Cassius - this is not just a ruthless conspirator but a man of deep feelings. In an interview the actor speaks of the Platonic love between Brutus and Cassius but the nature of their love is not immediately extractable from their acting and Cassius' overemotionality is impregnable at times. The acting of both, nonetheless, is an excellent portrayal of the complex, double-natured characters of the two "honourable" Romans. Both Joseph and Nri play with penchant and fashion and exploit the potential human-ness of Shakespeare's great political villains.
Much defying stereotypes, Jeffery Kissoon's Caesar is a slightly overweight, crippled man in his late 50's and outwardly there is little to give away the warrior and conqueror. But bearing in mind the African setting, the portrayal of Caesar starts to form an appropriate shape within the context.
Portia, Calpurnia and the rest of the cast create refined images in tune with the African spirit of the production. The Roman mob's lively African-style song and dance "Hey, Caesar, Caesar!" in welcoming Caesar and joined in by Caesar himself is a very successful twist to heat up the audience at the start of the play. The white-powdered semi-naked gigantic soothsayer adds supernatural terror onto the grotesque omen of the Ides of March.
The film lasts 2.5 hours, with an extra 40 minutes on the making of Julius Caesar that includes interviews with the cast and the brilliant director. Gregory Doran's source of inspiration being Nelson Mandela's reading of Shakespeare's play in prison is fascinating.
It is a wonder how natural Shakespeare's timeless language gushes from the mouths of the "black Romans" in semi-modernised costumes. If Julius Caesar were the only play the phenomenal Gregory Doran had ever directed, he would still contend for the title of the best Shakespeare director ever.