The dictator has fallen and there’s a power vacuum. The conspirators who plotted against him are divided. Their country is riven and anarchy threatens.
At London’s Noel Coward Theatre, ancient Rome is transposed to an anonymous state for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Julius Caesar.” It could be modern Iraq, Libya or Egypt or perhaps the Syria and Zimbabwe of the future.
The production’s unique selling point is its all-black cast, led by a magisterial Jeffery Kissoon as Caesar. Things start promisingly with a street carnival already taking place across the stage as the audience arrives. The pace is fast and the action bowls along with those familiar quotes “beware the ides of March” and “et tu, Brute.”
Worrying about plot spoilers seems pointless when every school kid knows about Caesar’s demise.
I’ve seen more convincing Shakespearean stabbings. You can see Caesar breathing as he lies on the ground.
A later murder, with a South African-style “necklace” tire, is almost laughable. The victim is led away, and there is a backstage flash of red and a pathetic puff of smoke, like something out of a children’s magic show.
With Caesar disposed of before the interval, the plotters immediately start their tedious post mortems. These continue for most of the rest of the play. Director Gregory Doran leaves some actors with little to do but stand motionless while others wring their blood-covered hands.
The crowd livens up with an exceptional “friends, Romans, countrymen” speech from Mark Antony, played by Ray Fearon (he’s moved right on since his time as garage mechanic Nathan Harding in TV soap opera “Coronation Street”). The power of his rhetoric, praising Caesar rather than burying him, turns the mob -- and, it seems, many in the audience -- against the killers.
Fearon’s controlled power is more impressive than Cyril Nri as Caius Cassius, and Paterson Joseph as Marcus Brutus. Both whip themselves into unconvincing rages. Their military defeats come like slow-moving car crashes you can anticipate a full 20 minutes before they happen.
Civil war should make for riveting drama. Yet there comes a point, very rare for the RSC, where the whole becomes as much endurance as entertainment.
Things pick up when Kissoon makes a brief reprise in ghostly white. All that’s left of the emperor is a Saddam-like statue at the back of the set, which finally topples with over-heavy symbolism.
What the Stars Mean: ***** Exceptional **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Mediocre (No stars) Poor
“Julius Caesar” is at the Noel Coward Theatre, 85-88 Saint Martin’s Lane, WC2N 4AU, through Sept. 15. Information: +44-20-7759-8010 or http://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk.
The production tours to Aylesbury, Bradford, Salford, Norwich and Cardiff through Oct. 27. Later dates are planned for Moscow and New York.
(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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