Theater review by Helen Shaw. BAM Harvey Theater (see Off-Broadway). By William Shakespeare. Dir. Gregory Doran. With ensemble cast. 2hrs 45mins. One intermission.
For a play that slides nearly immediately into tragedy, Gregory Doran's production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar starts with surprising joy. Reimagined in an unspecified ’70s-era African republic, this invigorating Royal Shakespeare Company offering begins with an eruption of dance and praise. “Caesar! Caesar!” the people sing, delighted to see the great man (played by Jeffery Kissoon) stroll among them in his safari whites. The evocative setting (Caesar's horsehair fly whisk recalls Malawi's Hastings Banda) doesn't just allow Doran to employ a formidable all-black cast or use composer Akintayo Akinbode's propulsive West African score. It also forces us to reconsider Rome, the tragedy's true femme fatale and goddess. Modern audiences can forget that the Eternal City was once frequently on fire, torn by clan rivalries and driven by superstition and augury. We won't forget it here, though. Designer Michael Vale's crumbling concrete stadium recalls the Colosseum, but also Mobutu's Zaire—and all the places where tyrants have been toppled, leaving chaos in their wake.
Despite this conceptual richness, faults (pace Cassius) do sometimes lie in our stars—namely, in our leads Brutus (Paterson Joseph) and Mark Antony (Ray Fearon). In the play's first scenes, both excel: Joseph's Brutus stretches like a stroked cat when Casca (sly Joseph Mydell) flatters him, and Fearon stumbles into the senate as hungover and self-congratulatory as a frat boy in Chem class. Both are best when interacting with the tremendous ensemble—Brutus's loyal servant Lucius (Simon Manyonda), for instance, or Kissoon himself—but neither man succeeds at his louder, lonelier orations.
The play's other Big Man (Shakespeare himself) must share the blame, though, for the second half's halting gait. Once we tear ourselves from Caesar's bleeding side, we endure shouted battle scenes and barbarous dramaturgy. No matter how fickle the city seemed in the first half, we find we're like any good citizen: We long to be in Rome again.—Helen Shaw