- Julius Caesar, and: The Taming of the Shrew
This Julius Caesar was set in sub-Saharan Africa, with a black British cast. Recalling totalitarian regimes such as those of Robert Mugabe and Idi Amin, the production brought out powerful resonances between the tense struggles over political power in Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy, and the violent military conflicts and easy political assassinations that remain an everyday reality in many African countries.
Steep stone steps rose dramatically upstage, on which a group of musicians with African instruments and vuvuzelas sat, playing intermittently. At the top of the steps was a line of barbed wire, raising the unanswered question of what threat might lie on the other side. Dominating the skyline was a vast stone head, turned away from the audience, one hand raised in a leader’s greeting or salute. Representing the head of Caesar, it echoed Cassius’s disgusted complaint: “Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world / Like a Colossus.” Later, as the lights dimmed for the appearance of Caesar’s ghost, the head revolved and came crashing down, recalling the scenes of toppling statues which have followed the collapse of political regimes in countries around the world. In this production, however, it was clear that the fall of one regime acted only as a catalyst for factional violence that had been bubbling under the surface all along.
During the pre-show, the group of musicians sat singing African tunes as a small crowd of citizens wandered around below. Posters with pictures of Caesar lay around underfoot; several men wore shirts in his colors, and a group jokingly carried aloft a puppet Caesar wearing a crown. Music and mood appeared lighthearted, the group in carefree holiday mode. The Soothsayer—here a witchdoctor—appeared creeping slowly into their midst as they became momentarily startled and afraid. Retiring to a vantage point he kept vigil, breaking his silence at last only to shriek: “Beware the Ides of March.” During the assassination of Caesar the Soothsayer’s body began to convulse and bleed heavily in sympathy, as if responding with prophetic agony to the oncoming eruption of political bloodshed. Even in the pre-show, outbreaks of savagery were never far from the surface: a young man got into a scuffle with Caesar’s supporters and was kicked as he lay on the ground until a shouting woman persuaded the group to disperse. But violence soon broke out again as tribunes Marullus [End Page 642] and Flavius erupted on-stage. Clad in military uniforms, they carried guns and bullwhips which they cracked in the faces of the tradesmen with deafening menace on seeing the Caesar paraphernalia and the festivities.
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Lightning alterations in tempo and mood were characteristic of the production as a whole, which skillfully emphasized the rapidly changing faces of the characters and the speed with which events could turn from peaceful to savage. Throughout the show the mood became progressively more ominous, assisted by dimming lights and increasingly atonal music. During the storm scene, men were forced to shine torches...