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Friday, May 3, 2013

The Royal Shakespeare Company's Julius Caesar

This past Sunday, I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Julius Caesar at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).

It had been staged last year in London, and it came to Brooklyn for a couple of weeks. Tickets were hard to come by and I got to see the very last performance.

I enjoyed seeing it, especially at BAM’s Harvey Theater.

But I have to confess that I was disappointed with the production.

The biggest problem I had was the accent the actors used.

This version of Julius Caesar takes place in a modern African country, and is performed by an all black cast. 

Here is a very short article about director Gregory Doran’s decision to stage it in Africa.  

The actors spoke with African accents -- some of them harder to understand than others.

I don’t mind when Shakespeare is set in different times and places. But to listen to Shakespeare’s language spoken in a different accent made the play less accessible to me.

I have read the play before and I have seen other productions, notably Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival production in 1988 starring Al Pacino as Mark Antony and Martin Sheen as Brutus.

The actors in this RSC version were all quite good, and the performances excellent -- but ultimately I think that they didn’t need to add accents to tell the story. They should have just used their own voices.

I am very familiar with the actor Paterson Joseph. I even wrote about him in this blog last year.

Paterson Joseph as Brutus

He is so talented, and has such a rich voice. I wanted to hear that voice. Listening to him speak another accent was disappointing.

I was not the only one who found the accent difficult. During the intermission, I overheard two people say the same thing. One woman was not familiar with the play at all and she complained that she couldn’t follow the story.

I have also found reviews that mention the difficulty in following the play -- here and here.

In general, I prefer to see Shakespeare as simply as possible. When there are too many distractions -- costumes, music, settings -- I enjoy the play less. 

In any event, I still enjoyed watching the play again, and many in the audience were very entertained.

As I watched it, I tried to imagine that I was watching the very first performance of it in history -- the world premiere.

After the Globe Theatre was built in 1599, it was the very first play that Shakespeare performed. He christened the new theatre with this play.

What an odd choice!

A play performed in a theatre about Julius Caesar, who was assassinated in a theatre?

I wrote about this recently -- on the anniversary of Caesar's death, 15 March.

Why not a comedy, or a romance?

No. Shakespeare had other things on his mind.

He must have been thinking about what concerned his audience the most and what would most entertain them.

London, in late 1599, was obviously not in the mood for some light entertainment. 

When Shakespeare was writing Julius Caesar, he must have been very worried that a rebellion or coup d’etat was going to happen.

I have explored the relationship between Shakespeare and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex in this blog and in my version of Hamlet.

Was Essex the real Brutus?

Essex was Shakespeare’s friend and patron. Essex led a failed rebellion against Queen Elizabeth in 1601, and was executed.

Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in response to these events and the play was written to remember Essex.

We don’t know the exact nature of the relationship between Shakespeare and Essex. We don’t know how close they were.

But we do know that Shakespeare wrote his Henry V play in early 1599 in part to celebrate Essex, who was about to lead an army in Ireland.

Essex failed miserably in Ireland and came home, dishonored and in the Queen’s disfavor.

This would have been the time in which Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar. In fact, the earliest recorded performance of the play was 21 September 1599. Essex was ordered to return to London on 24 September. Within days he was sentenced to house arrest.

Essex immediately began to gather men at his house, and this is arguably when the Essex Rebellion of 1601 was first hatched.

It makes sense that Shakespeare, in writing this play, was appealing to his friend and patron Essex. With this play, he is saying that there are indeed reasons for a regime change, but the reasons may not be valid and there may be unfortunate consequences.

I am not saying that Shakespeare was a co-conspirator with Essex, or that he had precise knowledge of what Essex planned to do.

But Shakespeare, like many people in England, knew that Essex was not going to take his punishment sitting down. 

This is why Shakespeare wrote this play.

Also, when I watch the scene of Cinna the poet getting killed by an mob who mistake him for one of the conspirators who kill Caesar, I can’t help but think that this was Shakespeare’s personal nightmare.

I think Shakespeare was afraid that he might be mistaken as one of Essex’s co-conspirators and be killed.

One of the reasons the play is so powerful is because it was written at a time of great political turmoil, and a general popular fear of more turmoil.

I think Shakespeare shared that fear and tapped into it, as he wrote his Julius Caesar play.

What do you think?


David B. Schajer

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