Almost universal acclaim greeted this RSC production when it opened at Stratford in June. Now, on a substantial British tour – and off to Moscow next month – we have a chance to see why.
Apparently inspired by Nelson Mandela’s love of the play, the RSC’s new boss Gregory Doran has set this Roman political thriller in, an unspecified, modern African state and cast it with an all-black crack cast of British actors. It works.
From the moment you walk in the theatre, it looks right. Michael Vale’s set suggests both a small section of an amphitheatre and a crumbling football stadium. The opening minutes, which feature chanting, African rhythms, slogan-carrying plebs, an on-stage reggae band and the soothsayer/witchdoctor predicting the end of Caesar, pitch the audience headlong into the immediacy of the setting and the conviction of the adaptation is maintained throughout.
The cast is strong without exception. Ray Fearon, once a car mechanic on a Street just down the road from here, but now a chunkily charismatic Mark Antony, delivers his big moment, the “friends, Romans, countrymen” speech, with considerable energy, his intention, of course, at this point in the plot, to whip up the mob against the murderers of Caesar – and with this power of oratory no wonder the populace are enraged. I don’t like some of his intonations, particularly on the word ‘honourable’ but overall this is a very considerable performance.
Cyril Nri doesn’t look the leanest and hungriest Cassius of all time but does look shrinkingly devious enough and politically savvy. Paterson Joseph’s always firm and resolute but complex Brutus is impressive too while Jeffrey Kissoon is a bloated, frail and corrupt-looking Caesar. The wives also have their moments, Adjoa Andoh as Portia and Ann Ogbomo as Calpurnia.
Doran’s direction and pace try hard to ensure that the interest doesn’t drop in what is almost inevitably the anticlimactic later scenes but I can’t say he entirely succeeds, Shakespeare’s fault for writing the last quarter or so as little more than a series of alarms and excursions.
It does all speed along at a terrific rate however. Unlike Stratford, where it was played without an interval, it’s now overall around two hours forty, instead of two hours fifteen, but still a very intense experience.