Year of Shakespeare: Julius Caesar at the RSC

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This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


Julius Caesar, RSC, dir. Gregory Doran, at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle, 19 July 2012

By Monika Smialkowska, University of Northumbria

‘Is this a holiday?’ (1.1.2) The question which Flavius asks of the commoners gathering in the streets in the first scene of Julius Caesar felt particularly apt at the beginning of this production. As we walked into the auditorium to take our seats, we were greeted by a full-blown fiesta-cum-political-rally taking place on stage. A small crowd was excitedly milling about, talking, bickering, buying, selling, and occasionally dancing to the lively music played by a band located on a set of granite steps which dominated the stage. In the middle of the festive throng, Caesar’s supporters were conducting a campaign, sporting his photographs and placards. They were heckled and challenged by an opposing faction. The scene was clearly set in present-day Africa: the band combined traditional instruments such as mbira and kora with guitars and saxophones, and the all-black cast wore casual contemporary clothes with some African accents. The grandeur of the granite set and the giant statue of a man with one arm raised in salute or blessing, placed at the rear of the stage, hinted at a modern dictatorship. Finally, an element of ritual was added: an effigy of Caesar was carried around, and an ominous figure of a soothsayer appeared – barefooted and bare-chested, in startling make-up and greyish body-paint, wearing a flowing skirt made of animal skins. The first impression of this Julius Caesar was undoubtedly exciting, but also somewhat disconcerting – after all, weren’t we being presented with an accumulation of European stereotypes of Africa? What was the company trying to say?

Recent events in countries such as Zimbabwe, Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia, make Julius Caesar – a play violently embodying debates surrounding democracy and tyranny – unquestionably relevant to an African context. Transposing republican Rome plunging into civil war to an unidentified African country torn by violent internal struggles worked very well, evoking timely political resonances. What made me uneasy, however, was the context of this particular production – the RSC’s contribution to the World Shakespeare Festival. It is one thing to watch a Tunisian ensemble like Artistes Producteurs Associés make parallels between Macbeth and Ben Ali’s recently toppled regime; it is another thing for a British, state-subsidised company to adapt Shakespeare to comment on African politics. In the latter case, some uncomfortable questions arise: are we, in the Western world, assuming a superior position to criticise developments which we necessarily only know as outsiders (and which, incidentally, can to some extent be traced back to the legacy of European colonial enterprises)?

This problem was compounded by the fact that the play was set in an unspecified, nameless African country. Are we to assume that Africans in general are like the figures represented here? Are we, consciously or not, dealing in stereotypes and objectifying Africa as an exotic ‘other’?  Moreover, to a layperson like me, the accent in which the characters spoke was a generic ‘African English’, and I couldn’t shake off the impression that it was British actors putting it on (an impression reinforced by the programme listing a ‘Dialect Coach’ among the production team). This felt rather different to overseas companies which participated in the World Shakespeare Festival translating his plays and words ‘to states unborn and accents yet unknown’ (3.1.113). The RSC’s Julius Caesar revealed that adapting Shakespeare into alien social settings can be a sensitive issue: it is not only Shakespeare but also cultural representations that can be ‘owned’, contested, and appropriated.

Interestingly, the production registered that transferring Shakespeare across time and space is problematic, and commented on this in theatrical terms. In the scene of Caesar’s assassination, there was an unexpected departure from the modern-dress convention: the conspirators appeared in black togas and Caesar donned a sumptuous blue cloak. However, contemporary references didn’t entirely disappear, as the characters kept on their wristwatches and some of the togas were worn over modern clothing. The effect was that of Brechtian alienation – we no longer could take for granted either the ‘original’, Roman setting or the modernised, African one. This raised even more questions: was the company commenting on Shakespeare’s own historical inaccuracies, such as the infamous clock striking in ancient Rome? If so, why? Maybe to diffuse potential criticisms of this production’s generalisations regarding its African setting. Or maybe to say that, after all, Shakespeare is universal and his plays deal with the ‘human condition’, not with specific times or places. But then why make a point of presenting such an explicitly ‘African’ Julius Caesar?

Creating more questions than answers, this was undoubtedly a fresh and thought-provoking interpretation of the play. One of its surprising features was the strong infusion of humour. Julius Caesar can appear very solemn, with its rhetorical pathos and its sententious, canonised speeches. The RSC’s rendering, especially Joseph Mydell’s Casca, who was often played for laughs, unexpectedly showed that high politics has its ridiculous side too – petty rivalries, trivial motivations, embarrassing vanity, greed, and folly. At the same time, the production didn’t shy away from showing deadly serious consequences of political upheavals to ordinary citizens, as embodied in the chilling scene of Cinna the Poet being burned alive, in a car tire, by the enraged mob. To me, however, the most important issue which this performance brought to light was the problematic nature of the West’s representation of (and, by extension, involvement or intervention in) non-Western cultures and politics. The RSC took a risky step in setting their Julius Caesar in Africa, especially during the World Shakespeare Festival, which hosted some visiting African companies. Representing another culture can mean depicting it (from what position – equal or privileged?) or speaking for it (by what right?). In the postcolonial world, engaging in either of these activities is liable to arouse suspicions of cultural imperialism. By braving these suspicions, the RSC provided an arena where these important issues can be debated.


Want to know what others thought? Listen to interviews with audience members below:

What do you think about this interpretation of Shakespeare? Add your thoughts to the comments below!

To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.

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Monika Smialkowska is a Senior Lecturer in English at Northumbria University. She specialises in Early Modern literature and appropriations of Shakespeare.
  • K Phinn156

    I take the author’s point, but by the same token, has Macbeth only to be played by Scottish actors and what does the “awful” modern dress Macbeth last year say about modern Scotland?  Not a lot I hope

  • Erin Sullivan

    Thank you Monika for your thoughtful and insightful review. I both admire and have reservations about the production – it is a strong, clear interpretation that showcases some really wonderful actors. But I found the African context at once vague and overly determined. I don’t know if this means it shouldn’t have been done – a part of me thinks that if this is what it takes to bring together such a talented cast of black British actors (and I mean both the professionals in the leading roles and the larger ensemble drawn from a group of amateur volunteers) then so be it. 
    I think there is some uncertainty going on among audiences in terms of what constitutes ‘native British’ and ‘African other’ – this is reflected for me in Michael Billington’s strangely worded statement: ‘To see it played by an all-black British cast is also to be reminded of the wealth of classical acting talent available in this country’ ( I was surprised that no one queried this statement, or the African setting more generally, in the comments under his blog, but I’m glad you’ve brought it up now – I’m sure it will remain an important talking point as the production tours to London.

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