‘And the first motion…’ [Updated]

7th June 2012

Reviews of and responses to the stage production of Julius Caesar are appearing – an initial list is here, with extracts from a number of the articles across the jump:

Michael Billington’s 4 star piece for the Guardian
• another 4 star review from Charles Spencer for The Telegraph
• 4 stars too from Quentin Letts, Mail Online
• … and 4 stars from Fiona Mountford, Evening Standard
Moya Hughes for What’sOnStage.com agrees: 4 stars
• for the Financial Times Ian Shuttleworth is less convinced: 3 stars
• no star ratings from Ian Hughes for the Stratford Observer (but he likes it)
• stars are out for Michael Coveney at The Stage too, but he too is enthusiastic
• more fulsome praise from Kate Bassett in the Independent
Andy Richards for the Birmingham Mail is positive, but with some reservations
• for the Oxford Times, Christopher Gray is very enthusiastic
Gordon Parsons for the Morning Star says the production is ‘not to be missed’
• 5 stars from Kieran James at The Good Review
Chloe Stopa-Hunt at The Oxonian Review also likes the production a lot
• plus, Christopher Hart gives it 5 stars in the Sunday Times (but it’s behind the paywall – extracts below)

• Radio 3’s Nightwaves discussion is online (from 08:24 to 16:11)
• Radio 4’s Saturday Review item is also available (from 23:08 to 30:40) – Deborah Moggach and Dreda Say Mitchell absolutely love it, Paul Morley is a little more reserved
• BBC News has a video report online (with a contribution from me that lasts all of 4 seconds!)
Stratford Herald online has a short interview with director Greg Doran
• Paul Edmondson chairs a short discussion (4:09) with three students from University of Vermont about the production

This is from Michael Billington for the Guardian:

This, of all Shakespeare’s plays, badly needs a shot in the arm – and it receives a powerful one in this production by Gregory Doran, the RSC’s artistic director designate, who has transposed the action to modern Africa. To see it played by an all-black British cast is also to be reminded of the wealth of classical acting talent available in this country…

No one production can ever make total sense of this slippery play. But Michael Vale’s set, with its sun-drenched stone steps, gives it a physical reality; Akintayo Akinbode’s music moves from the carnivalesque to the ominous and Doran’s production gives the play’s central debate about the necessary political murder a new immediacy.

In a year that has already seen an abundance of visiting Shakespeare, it is good to be reminded that we haven’t lost the power to radically reinvent the plays ourselves.

Charles Spencer’s article for The Telegraph includes this:

Doran has… assembled a crack cast of many of Britain’s leading black actors to appear in his gripping staging set in modern Africa.

The play hurtles along without an interval and the dramatic concept works powerfully as we remember the continent’s violent post-colonial history with its succession of dictatorships and bloody coups…

The production is also a reminder of the strength in depth of British black actors. There isn’t a dud performance here, and Shakespeare – who was such an enduring inspiration to Nelson Mandela and his fellow inmates on Robben Island – sounds just fine with an African accent…

This is a production of great pace, panache and originality and one leaves the theatre convinced that with Doran in command, the Royal Shakespeare Company will be in hands that are at once safe and adventurous.

Quentin Letts, Mail Online, says:

… the concept itself is pretty neat and thoroughly believable… a watchable, thought-provoking interpretation.

From Fiona MountfordEvening Standard:

The recent announcement of Gregory Doran as the RSC’s new artistic director was met with nigh-on universal acclaim, and it is supple, intelligently thought-out productions like this that demonstrate why he was such a fine choice.

Despots being toppled and new tyrants taking their place: it all fits most felicitously with the continent of Amin and Mugabe. Crucially, though, Doran isn’t just a man for the big gesture. Sure, the setting is bold — and it reminds us how unusual it still is to see an all-black cast — but it’s filled with precision-worked individual details.

 Moya Hughes for What’sOnStage.com:

… the evening is both provocative and enjoyable; inviting us to recognise once again the basic humanity of Shakespeare’s work in that it continues to resonate with each generation of theatregoers. Shakespeare’s preoccupation with man’s attempts to make sense of and engage in an everchanging world crosses generational, cultural and political boundaries, and this is clearly evident in Doran’s lucid production.

Ian Shuttleworth has a very particular (eccentric?) take in the Financial Times:

The principal cast all give expressive performances throughout – though I do not know how much is a considered portrait of African culture and how much, conversely, is a by-product of attempts to make it more accessible to a European audience.

In fact while celebrating Shakespeare’s universality, herein lies a danger that this kind of interpretation may inadvertently point up the contrast between host and subject cultures. Especially at a time of heritage-centred celebration like this, it may evoke complacent (not to say racist) self-congratulation that we ourselves are not prone to such African-style instability and conflict. As the saying has it, how very different from the home life of our own dear Queen.

Michael Coveney for The Stage:

There’s a carnival atmosphere as the crowds gather for the Feast of Lupercal and the acclamation of the conquering hero – Gregory Doran’s brilliant “all black” Julius Caesar seems almost too obvious a take on a convulsive political play of tyranny, conspiracy, military coup, battles, chaos and personal tragedy.

Kate Bassett in the Independent:

Feel the heat. The RSC has just set Julius Caesar thrillingly ablaze. Shakespeare’s Roman play is often, wrongly, considered cold and colourless. Now, though, this political drama is scorchingly reinvigorated in Gregory Doran’s staging which – with a superb ensemble of black British actors – translates Ancient Rome to modern-day Africa. It’s a startlingly close fit.

Christopher Hart for the Sunday Times (retrieved by my colleague Linda from behind the paywall):

Doran transports us exhilaratingly to a modern African state ruled over by one J Caesar, a typical big man of African power politics… [but] it is Brutus and ­Cassius who dominate this production. Cyril Nri’s Cassius is less cold and envious, more sympathetically hot-blooded and anguished than we often see him, while Paterson Joseph’s Brutus is quite magnificent, very credibly the noblest Roman of them all. In lesser versions, he can appear a chilly idealist, but not here.

Joseph’s heart-rending performance gives him true tragic grandeur and makes the play a moving as well as compelling political thriller. This is only intensified by the scene between Brutus and his wife, Portia (Adjoa Andoh), a beautifully played portrait of a middle-aged couple still madly in love.

And the outcome of ­Brutus and Cassius’s noble dreams is bitterly pessimistic. Any fool can kill a Caesar — a Gadaffi, a Saddam — but what then? Turmoil, civil war and the rise of a new Caesar to impose order again. The greatness of this muscular, intelligent and deeply moving production is that such bitter failure only heightens Brutus’s hopeless nobility.

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