Battered concrete, broken away to reveal the rusting iron frame within, forms the backdrop to Gregory Doran’s production of Julius Caesar. It’s an apt metaphor for the state of Rome at this point: what ought to be majestic and powerful is fracturing, broken and damaged by war.
Moving Rome to a contemporary African state allows us not only to see how faultlines in the ruling classes extend into the present day, but also provide an avenue for some of Britain’s best black actors to shine. I have long admired the likes Cyril Nri (Cassius), Paterson Joseph (Brutus) and Adjoa Andoh (Portia), but it’s rare as hen’s teeth to be able to see them in the same production: most large scale theatre productions tend to have a few black or minority ethnic cast members at most.
How wonderful, then, that after a well-received run in Stratford-upon-Avon and a brief sojourn in the West End, the Royal Shakespeare Company is taking this production on tour. I saw it on Wednesday at my local theatre, the Aylesbury Waterside. It’s one of the triumphs of this venue – combined with the increased prominence that touring theatre is getting in general from the subsidised sector – that we are getting National Theatre and RSC productions on our doorstep. And the great acoustic qualities of the Waterside’s auditorium are ideally suited to a play which revolves around several of Shakespeare’s greatest moments of rhetorical oratory.
At Stratford, the production ran briskly without an interval: the pace is still here, now broken by a single interval. And it’s only after the interval that Ray Fearon’s Mark Anthony really makes his mark – but make it he does. As he carefully demolishes the Roman public’s faith in Brutus and his co-conspirators’ actions, Fearon builds in stature until not only the masses onstage, but also the masses in the audience, are eating out of his hand.
Those scenes apart, though, it’s the interplay between Cassius and Brutus which holds the attention. For while it’s Julius’s name on the bill, Shakespeare’s tragedy is less about the Emperor than the power vacuum he leaves behind.
Julius Caesar continues at the Waterside until tomorrow, September 22: then tours to Bradford, Salford, Norwich and Cardiff. For more details of the tour, visit the RSC website. For more about the Aylesbury Waterside, visit atgtickets.com/aylesbury