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Caesar Then & Now

Columbus one of only two stops in North America for All-African-American production

By Ryan Haye

Published March 1, 2013
Royal Shakespeare Company's all-African American production of Julius Caesar comes to Columbus in May. (Credit: Kwame Lestrade)

According to legend, when Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island for his fight against Apartheid in South Africa, a book of the complete works of William Shakespeare was clandestinely passed around from inmate to inmate. The prisoners would sign and date their favorite passage of the book and pass it on to the next.

The book, known as the “Robben Island Bible,” served as the catalyst for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) update of Julius Caesar set it in modern day Africa. It marks the first time that Caesar has been performed with an all African-American cast and it carries the added weight of also being Mandela’s favorite Shakespearean play. “Oh yeah, there was a lot of pressure. You know, the story (Robben Island) wasn’t lost on us, but it really brought us together because we wanted to do it justice,” said actor Ray Fearon, who plays Mark Antony.

Caesar has been referred to as Shakespeare’s “Africa Play” due to its themes of political upheaval, intrigue and double crossings – making it a perfect choice for a modern update. “It’s timely because of the political history of Africa and especially now with the Arab Spring,” Fearon said, referencing the revolutionary demonstrations and popular upheaval of long-standing dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and now Syria. “Sure, you can remove a dictator, but what do you do next? Who do you replace them with? Another dictator?”

And ultimately that’s the rub the conspirators faced in Caesar. Sure, they wanted to save the Republic; to do so, they thought they had to get rid of a Caesar that had become too powerful. But what’s next? Who fills that void? It’s a question that never quite gets answered by Brutus and Cassius, and it leads to their final defeat.

Perhaps no other character in the play knows how this type of upheaval can lead to a vicious, and seemingly never-ending cycle of retribution and revenge like Mark Antony. “You know, I play Mark Antony and his sole purpose in the play is revenge,” Fearon said. “Revenge for the murder of his friend, and on some level, for being left out of the conspiracy. After he fulfills his revenge he goes back to doing what he does best – and that’s womanizing and drinking. He’s no leader. By the end of the play the fractures are visible between Mark Antony and his ally Octavius.”

Julius Caesar – it has been argued – is also a tragedy with no villains. Essentially, all the characters are acting in what they believe to be the best interest of their beloved Republic. And after a rather shrill election cycle, perhaps that something we Americans can also take to heart: the fact that despite all of our differences, we all want what’s best for the country.

“It’s sad, because these guys (in the play) really know each other well. They went to school together, grew up together, they all want the same thing; yet, they get everything wrong about each other,” Fearon said. “Caesar warns Antony about Cassius and Antony doesn’t believe him and then Brutus convinces the other conspirators not to kill Mark Antony. Look how that worked out for him.”

Currently the RSC production of Julius Caesar is on hiatus as they prepare for their visit to North America. The only two cities will be New York City (April) and here in Columbus (May). The production has enjoyed rave reviews and it’s quite an honor for Columbus to have such a historically significant work make a stop here. Oh, and as for the passage that Mandela signed and dated as his favorite:

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

For more information and to purchase tickets for RSC’s production of Julius Caesar, visit www.capa.com.


Jen @ 03/05/2013 10:53 am

The blurb below the title claims that the cast is "All-African-American", but it's my understanding that the Royal Shakespeare Company is a British theatre company. In that case, the cast isn't "African-American", because they're not American. They'd be an all-black cast.