Monday, April 29, 2013

Julius Caesar at BAM

        photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Saul Bellow once raised eyebrows in the multi-cultural wars by asking “who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?” (“Saul Bellow, Who Breathed Life Into American Novel, Dies at 89,” NYT, 4/6/05).  The Royal Shakespeare production of Julius Caesar, which just completed a run at BAM, could have been a great riposte, if one inserted Shakespeare in the place of Tolstoy. If only it had taken the bull by the horns. Why not employ the Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary approach? What about doing what The Royal Shakespeare Company did when they collaborated with the Wooster Group on Troilus and Cressida? What if Chinua Achebe had written an adaptation? As it stands, the production is weighted heavily towards a straight rendition of Shakespeare set against a generalized view of African culture and history that's lacking in any specific referents. Why insert an African setting if you are not going to do anything with it? The production notes actually remark “You could be forgiven for thinking that William Shakespeare and Nelson Mandela have absolutely nothing in common” and go on to mention the fact that The Complete Works of William Shakespeare were smuggled to Mandela in prison and that one of the passages that spoke to him famously uttered by Caesar himself that begins,  “Cowards die many times before their deaths. The valiant never taste of death but once. ” Apart from this allusion to the tortured history of South Africa in the playbill, it’s disappointing that the current production fails to employ Shakespeare’s study of tyranny in the service of say the murder of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo—as one iconic example of Congolese history that's ripe for interpretation. The great lines “Friends, Romans, countrymen,” “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, But in ourselves,” “et tu, Brute?--Then fall Caesar!” are all perfectly rendered. However, Gregory Duran’s directorial concept actually ends up obfuscating the otherwise powerful performances by Jeffery Kissoon (Julius Caesar), Paterson Joseph, (Marcus Brutus), Ray Fearon (Mark Anthony) and Cyril Nri (Caius Cassius).

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