A DESPOT is overthrown in a coup by a group of partisans who take control and then find themselves creating the same tyranny.
The story is as old as time but give the rebels AK-47s and machetes, set the action in a minor African state, and you have a muscle version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that is bang up to date and set to thrill audiences at The Waterside Theatre next month.
Greg Dolan, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s incoming artistic director, starts off his reign with a revolutionary take (literally) on the Bard’s story about the thirst for power, the corruption of integrity, civil war and murder in an unstable Rome.
It was said to be a story, illicitly smuggled in, that got Nelson Mandela through his long years as a political prisoner and it’s known as Shakespeare’s Africa play.
This Rome is in war-torn Africa and the cast is made up of some of this country’s leading black actors who jumped at the chance to be included in a production that is an integral part of this year’s World Shakespeare Festival.
Some of them know at first hand the suffering caused by dictatorships. Their families have fled Uganda’s Idi Amin or escaped the famines of Biafra. If it hasn’t affected them personally then they know someone who has.
Said Dolan: “One of the inspirations behind setting Julius Caesar in Africa was discovering the Robben Island Shakespeare and that Mandela had chosen to autograph lines from the play.
“If you consider the history of the continent since independence over the last 50 or 60 years it has witnessed a series of freedom fighters turned democratically elected presidents, turned despotic rulers, who have pulled all the power to themselves in one party states.
“The fear of that tyranny has led to multiple military coups, assassinations and civil was which continue to ravage the continent. Caesar could be Amin or Bokassa, Mobutu or Mugabe.”
The RSC took a group of regional press along to a performance at its Stratford-upon-Avon home and we were disconcerted to find Prince Charles sitting a row behind us who, it appears, had studied the text and was enthralled, interestingly, by a story about revolution and the overthrow of a ruler.
Afterwards we chatted to Doran and some its cast – Paterson Joseph (Marcus Brutus) who was seen recently in BBC2’s Henry V; Jeffery Kissoon (Caesar); Cyril Nri (Caius Cassius) who, as a child, escaped the Biafran conflict; Ray Fearon (the story’s golden boy Mark Antony) and Adjoa Andoh (Portia) whose own journalist father had to flee Ghana.
For Doran his world has come full circle. He appeared in Julius Caesar when he joined the RSC as an actor 25 years ago. Now he’s back in charge of the company and determined to tell the complete story – making what happens to the characters after that famous assassination as important as the build-up.
“When we had the Arab Spring last year the big question on everyone’s mind wasn’t what will happen to Gaddafi – it was what would replace him when he went,” said the director. “That’s the big question about Julius Caesar.”
Jeffrey Kissoon believes Africa needs a Caesar to unite the country – but the problem is that someone so powerful is ultimately corrupted.
“That’s the irony. In getting rid of the dictator they usher in 12 emperors” added Doran.
The Bill’s Cyril Nri is also revisiting old ghosts. He made his debut out of drama school 30 years ago, in the RSC’s Caesar playing a minor role but he yearned for Cassius.
“It’s a beautiful rounding,” he said.
“There’s an emotional roller-coaster throughout,” said Paterson as the audience find themselves unsure who is good or evil in the fight for power.
“That’s Shakespeare’s genius,” he added.
Julius Caesar comes to The Waterside on Sept 19-22. For tickets call the box office 0844 871 7607 or go online www.atgtickets.com/aylesbury
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