Friday, 31 August 2012

RSC's African Caesar

Last week I went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Julius Caesar. It's in London till the 15th September, then it goes on tour. It's a great production. See it if you possibly can.

The play works completely naturally in its modern African setting, which obviates the need for anything pretentious or complicated, or any of the usual silly and distracting things productions think they have to do to make Shakespeare's world recognisable to a modern audience. The play works directly - set in a foreign country, but a foreign country in our world, not really any more foreign than, simply, Rome - without any alteration for the distance of time, because everything that matters is exactly the same.

It's a complicated play, fast moving, with no real hero, full of complicated and totally real and individual characters, each of them with great lines that you knew, and didn't know you knew. I was fascinated by the different moral and political universe each several character lives in, and how they overlap with each other, but don't coincide.

Brutus, obsessed with his notions of nobility and aristocracy, his own birth-equality with Caesar, knows as a fact that the mob matters politically, but it never really crosses his mind that they might not agree with him about the collective-and-equal preeminence of a high-born class being self-evidently better than a  monarchy. What is convincing to him must be convincing to everyone else. Cassius, interestingly, only thinks that anything convincing to Brutus must be convincing to other Senators. He is more intelligent.

Mark Antony is of entirely different stuff. Politically, he at least realises that the mob has members, who are quite possibly better off with a king than a feudal aristocracy, or at least who may think so. For himself, he doesn't care; his manipulation of the mob is quite cynical; but he must avenge his friend. He believes, or at least appears to, that Brutus thought he was doing the right thing. He just doesn't consider that relevant to his duty of revenge. He believes no such thing about Cassius. Cassius, he says, was just jealous. But who has never heard that, from one friend rationalising another's behaviour, when they don't really care to know? It's no more convincing.

We don't know whether he's right. Cassius, apart from being much brighter than Brutus, and unashamed to lie, doesn't tell us. We don't really know why he thinks this is all so urgent. Maybe Antony is right, but jealousy seems far too simple for the complex character played. We really don't get to see inside Cassius' head.

We just get to see how crazy it is to assume that what is self-evident to us seems the same way to other people, or that we can see inside anybody's head. I don't think Shakespeare was making that point. I just think he knew it and took it as read, and it was part of what made him such a wonderful writer.

Caesar, we know, is a man of real virtues, certainly vain, certainly brave, certainly feeling Brutus' betrayal. He's a grand, overweening, self-dramatising, convincing centre, believably beloved.

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

I had quibbles about some of the diction, but in terms of character the whole thing is extremely well played. I really want to see the same Mark Antony and the same Octavian sail straight on down the Nile and do Antony and Cleopatra as a sequel. It'd be fab.

There's also quite a bit of dancing and live music from a specially-created on stage band. You can catch them at the bar after every show. And maybe this post is just an excuse to tell you that they're called The Vibes of March.

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