Long live Caesar! Indeed, the Roman dictator is alive and well (you know...until he's not) at BAM's Harvey Theater thanks to The Royal Shakespeare Company. Under the sure-footed direction of Gregory Doran, this Julius Caesar, now making its American premiere, feels fresh and new while preserving Shakespeare's verse, expertly delivered by a cast of pros. You might just forget that you are watching a 414-year-old play.
Upon entering the theater, the audience encounters a raucous street party celebrating Caesar's triumph over Pompey, securing his position as the most powerful man in the fledgling African Republic of Rome. Senator Cassius (Cyril Nri) doesn't like this one bit and conspires with the much more respectable Brutus (Paterson Joseph), and several other aggrieved patricians, to kill Caesar (Jeffrey Kissoon) on the floor of the Senate. 2000-year-old spoiler alert: Successful in their plot, they unwittingly open a power vacuum, into which the martial Mark Antony (Ray Fearon) leaps, along with Caesar's nephew Octavius (Ivanno Jeremiah), who will eventually become Rome's first Emperor. Rather than preserve the Republic, they've aided in its ruin, along with their own as they are chased into the countryside by an angry mob: In the game of thrones, you either win or you die.
Designer Michael Vale has wisely crafted a specifically nonspecific world: The costumes on this all-black cast represent a plethora of styles found on the African continent, from cargo shorts to boubous (which bear more than a passing resemblance to togas). The soothsayer (Theo Ogundipe) who bids Caesar "Beware the Ides of March" is a medium to the spirit world. Covered in white body paint, he stands near-constant vigil over the ensuing carnage. The set is a concrete amphitheater, crumbling from war or neglect, possibly built by a now-departed colonial occupier. It is dominated by a colossal bronze statue of Caesar, arm outstretched in a manner evocative of Kim Il-Sung or Saddam Hussein.
Akintayo Akinbode's heart-pounding drum music, with accompanying West African dance, further enriches the tone of the play without boxing this Rome into a specific country: it could be about any fledgling African republic-cum-dictatorship.
Nri and Joseph are perfect as Cassius and Brutus. Nri embodies the slippery and unscrupulous Cassius. The envy he holds for Caesar glistens with each drop of sweat that beads on his brow. Joseph lends an air of ever-increasing sarcasm to Brutus, perhaps as a defense mechanism against the disappointment of being an honorable man in a dishonorable world. Both infuse their African dialect with shades of boarding school-bred British (as does the delightful Joseph Mydell as Casca), a hint at the still pervasive Imperial class system in a post-colonial world. These perfumed men are from the "right" families and they are convinced that they should rule as an elite coterie masquerading as a true and free republic.
In contrast, Fearon brings an earthy swagger to Mark Antony that proves far more appealing to the plebs. His "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" speech is a master class in political burlesque, giving the rabble (and the audience) just enough red meat to keep them constantly hungry for more. It also helps that Fearon is dead sexy.
This tension between great men (Caesar and Antony) and merely powerful men (the Senators) is accentuated in Doran's African production. This is not an exercise in auteurship on Doran's part, but proof that Shakespeare's plays are still relevant and alive. Jealousy, fear, and misplaced notions of honor still hold sway in political power struggles across the globe, perhaps no where so much as an African continent still reeling from the toxic effects of colonialism. In the end, someone will win Rome, but what will they inherit but a crumbling amphitheater and a useless statue?