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Royal Shakespeare Company sets JULIUS CAESAR in contemporary Africa (photo by Richard Termine)

Royal Shakespeare Company sets JULIUS CAESAR in contemporary Africa (photo by Richard Termine)

Brooklyn Academy of Music
BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton St. between Ashland & Rockwell Pl.
Through April 28, $25-$125

New Royal Shakespeare Company artistic director Gregory Doran makes a smashing debut with his unique take on the Bard’s Roman tragedy Julius Caesar. Inspired by the Robben Island Bible – a copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare that was annotated by South African political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, while being held on Robben Island – Doran sets the play in contemporary Africa, performed by an all-black British cast. The action begins about fifteen minutes prior to curtain, as a group of men and women have gathered for a political rally, holding up signs that read “Caesar” and dancing to live music (by Akintayo Akinbode) played by a small band using traditional instruments. They also share their faith in Caesar with early-arriving audience members sitting down front, talking to them and handing them flyers. The loose, fun atmosphere is soon interrupted by the appearance of Julius Caesar himself (Jeffery Kissoon), who is greeted by such supposed followers as Markus Brutus (Paterson Joseph), Caius Cassius (Cyril Nri), and Casca (Joseph Mydell). A wild soothsayer (Theo Ogundipe) predicts doom, but Caesar is too wrapped up in his own glory to worry too much about it. But as Caesar’s thirst for power grows, Brutus, Cassius, Casca, and others conspire to murder him, with Mark Antony (Ray Fearon) caught somewhere in the middle, trying to be a man of the people while also lamenting Caesar’s demise.

(photo by Richard Termine)

The deed is done, setting things in motion in stirring production of JULIUS CAESAR at BAM (photo by Richard Termine)

On December 16, 1977, Mandela highlighted the following passage from Julius Caesar in the Robben Island Bible: “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.” Working off that quote, Doran builds this stirring production around the concept of fear. Once the audience is seated, two guards come out, whipping their truncheons down hard, sending chilling sounds echoing through BAM’s Harvey Theater, getting everyone’s attention, both on- and offstage. Casca is afraid that Cassius might not be loyal to Caesar, Brutus is afraid that Caesar has gone mad with power, the people are afraid to be left without a strong leader, and Mark Antony is afraid for Rome’s future amid so much treachery. Looming over it all is a huge statue of Caesar, its back facing the crowd. Doran’s production is fresh and vibrant, breathing new life into what is one of Shakespeare’s most straightforward, less complex tales. It all takes place on Michael Vale’s cold, gray, multilevel concrete set, with the crowd wearing modern clothing and the main characters changing into black togas. The cast is strong, with Mydell and Joseph particularly effective in their key roles in a play that still resonates today, relating to recent revolution, assassination, and the general confusion of a conflicted citizenry. Julius Caesar continues at BAM through April 28, with members of the company participating in an Artist Talk following the April 26 performance.

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