Theatre review: Julius Caesar at the Noel Coward Theatre

A thrilling reworking brings startling clarity to Shakespeare’s study of ruthless political struggle

�The RSC’s thrilling Julius Caesar is one of those once-in-a-generation reworkings that brings a startlingly fresh understanding to the depiction of ruthless political struggle, the seizure of power in the wake of war and the ultimate futility of idealism.

It shows events that could have taken place in any number of modern Middle Eastern or African states, but director Gregory Doran – inspired by Nelson Mandela’s reading of Shakespeare while in prison – chooses to set the play in sub-Saharan Africa, where recent history is plagued with bitter fighting between Western-backed warlords over territory, blood diamonds and other natural resources.

Caesar, the former army general, is a typical warlord – “a man of such feeble temper,” as Cassius says – vain and brutal.

Cassius, the moral authority of the crumbling state, is splendidly played by Cyril Nri as clear-sighted but fearful Roman Senator, wary of Caesar’s cynical bid for kingship and absolute power, and convinced that the state can only be saved by his assassination.

Despite his opposition to violence, Brutus is drawn into the conspiracy. A stunning performance by Paterson Joseph shows him as a tortured idealist and revolutionary who convinces himself that the corruption of the state can only be halted by Caesar’s death.

Bathed in Caesar’s blood, Brutus urges the conspirators to go to the marketplace and cry “Peace, Freedom and Liberty”. Even as he says it, the phrase begins to sound hollow.

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But his lack of ruthlessness ultimately seals his fate, when he refuses to countenance the death of Mark Antony, Caesar’s chief ally, and allows him to speak at Caesar’s funeral.

Antony, brilliantly portrayed by Ray Fearon as the great political manipulator, moves the crowd to tears, and they turn on the conspirators. One is captured and killed – a prologue to the deaths of both Cassius and Brutus and the establishment of a regime just as bloody as the one they sought to replace.

* Julius Caesar is at the Noel Coward Theatre in St Martin’s Lane, WC2, until September 15