~by Carol Kelly
Twenty minutes into watching the recent RSC all black production of Julius Caesar, my overall sense was, “Why hasn’t this been done before?”. The play makes a seamless transition from Ancient Rome to modern day Africa, a continent which has seen numerous violent uprisings and civil crises in the last few decades. Echoes of Uganda, Rwanda, Zaire are brought to mind as the play explores the temporary nature of government and the fickleness of the mob. The undertones of the corruption are reinforced by the large gold watches worn by some of the lead characters. This production revitalizes some of the themes in Julius Caesar which have perhaps been lost through the traditional setting of the play in ancient Rome. This is achieved by adding sinister layers of ambiguity to the main protagonists as they debate and argue over the nature of leadership. The drums and rhythms of Africa provide a vibrant energy to the play, especially at the beginning as we are introduced to the characters and the political scene is set. The all black, predominantly male, cast wear African robes which effortlessly replace Roman togas and a witch-doctor provides the foreboding words about the Ides of March, again a perfect transition from the Roman soothsayer. The back of the stage is dominated by a huge statue with his back to us-all we see is his torso and right arm raised in a defiant upward thrust. After Caesar’s assassination, the statue is toppled and it leaves a gaping ashen void for the rest of the play. Setting the play in Africa struck me as an inspired choice not only because of the contemporary echoes that resonate but also because I felt that anyone coming to see the play for the first time, with no knowledge of the “original”, would be totally engaged and be likely to believe that this play was written for this setting.
Shakespeare’s plays live on precisely because they can be transposed to a different time and location. The truth in them and the richness of the language ensure their longevity. However I was just blown away by how this particular transition seemed to work so well. Has anyone else experienced this at a particular production? Love to hear!
Carol Kelly is Folger Education’s Festivals and Programs Manager. She arranges workshops for teachers around the country, and organizes our Secondary School Festival each spring, as well as our appearances at National Conferences like NCTE.