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Julius Caesar and Africa

Updated Friday, 24th August 2012

In this video, the spotlight is placed on the influence of African politics in the BBC film version of the RSC's Julius Caesar   

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Julius Caesar and Africa


[preparations for strategy scene]


Props assistant (director):

Light, more light.


John Wyver (producer):

So this production of Julius Caesar is set in modern times, not necessarily exactly now, but at some point over the last thirty years or so. And it’s set in Africa, but not in a specific country. It’s set in some kind of East African probably country, which again isn’t too specific, isn’t too defined. And Greg has the sense that this is a context which - it’s a country that’s gone through the process of independence, so this is a postcolonial world, a world where people are fighting and struggling for power, dealing with the legacy of an imperial past. And I think he feels that that kind of context provides a very stimulating environment for a modern presentation of the play.


Gregory Doran (director):

I suppose what cracked it for me was just finding out, as it were incidentally, that Nelson Mandela on Robben Island had this copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare. It was owned by an ANC inmate called Sonny Venkatrathnam. And Sonny had his wife smuggle this Complete Works and had disguised it with images of Rama and Sita that she had ripped out of a Hindu calendar. I just loved the idea of Shakespeare being protected by these Hindu gods.

As they were not allowed any literature at this point on RobbenIsland, having it as a prayer book meant that they could read it. And Sonny handed it around to the inmates who would underline their favourite passages and autograph them. Mandela had underlined Caesar’s words, ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths: The valiant never taste of death but once.’

And that struck me as being very interesting and that Julius Caesar was the most heavily annotated of all the plays. That, it somehow spoke to those people then in South Africa.


‘The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.’


‘Cowards die many times before their deaths;

The valiant never taste of death but once.

Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,

It seems to me most strange that men should fear,

Seeing that death, a necessary end,

Will come when it will come.’


Gregory Doran (director):

Talking to John Kani, the South African actor, he said to me, ‘Well it’s simple, Greg. It’s Shakespeare’s African play.’

Then the more I read, the more I thought about it, I discovered that Julius Nyerere, who was the first president of Tanzania, had translated the play into Swahili. Sol Plaatje, who was one of the founders of the ANC, had translated the play into Setswana as early as the nineteen twenties. So this was a play that was constantly being done in Africa. Now, did Julius Caesar provide a kind of revolutionary textbook of how to overthrow a regime? Or was it more to do with the courage required to overthrow that regime?

Because when you look at the history of the last half century in Africa, it’s a series of repeating stories, sometimes a cycle that seems to repeat itself, of a leader coming to power on a wave of popularity, then pulling that power to himself in a sort of one-party state, frequently that causing resentment, there being a military coup that overthrows him, countries being plunged into civil war – well, that’s – I’ve just given you the plot of Julius Caesar.

[rehearsal and filming of the strategy scene]


‘Now, as you are a Roman, tell me true.


‘Then as a Roman, hear the truth I tell,

For certain she is dead, and by strange manner.


‘Well, farewell Portia: we must die, Messala.


Cyril Nri (Cassius):

When Greg was explaining how he came across the Robben Island Shakespeares, I thought that was particularly significant. When I went to see him in fact I had just been reading, I brought along with me, an obituary to General Ojukwu, who was the leader of the Biafran side in the Nigeria-Biafran civil war. And I had known him as a child, and my father was close to him, and I had also seen the Gowon side of things, who was the other officer, they actually trained around the same time together, and it seemed to me significant that you got two men who essentially grew up together, leading opposite sides in a conflict, in a civil war, and essentially this is civil war, this is the essence of dictatorships, how they come about. When we strive for freedom and liberty against a dictatorship we often don’t think of what comes after, and this play deals with that, it deals with what happens when you haven’t thought through.




‘The Ides of March are come.’


‘Ay, Caesar, but not gone.’


‘Hail Caesar, Caesar, read this schedule.’


Adjoa Andoh (Portia):

I know that there are spiritual people who walk about and are treated with honour and reverence throughout Africa, and given great respect, and who are listened to or are ignored but worried about having been ignored, and so to have the soothsayer and the portents and the crazy storms, I think it works fantastically well. Because you are not saying these people are ignorant or these people are unintelligent, you’re just putting it in a different sort of context, and I think the resonances of that Rome that Shakespeare was writing about in that sixteenth, seventeenth-century England, they still resonate very strongly.

[preparation of art department settings]

Kristian Dench (first assistant):
Quick as we can on this changeover on this rig, please. So design I know you’ve got a lot to do, lighting I know there’s a lot to do, this rig makes or breaks the day.

Gregory Doran (director):
[reading] … As he disappears off shot, ‘Say I am merry…’

Adjoa Andoh (Portia):
‘Say I am merry.’


Gregory Doran (director):
I didn’t want the play to become too specific and there were certain things that we would have to avoid. So many of the black actors in this country are of either West Indian or indeed West African origins, so Nigerian-West African accents came most easily to most of the actors, but it then seemed as though we were talking about Nigeria or Ghana. Whereas if, what we went for eventually was sort of an East African accent which sat very well on the ear and sat very well with the iambic in the Shakespeare.

It was really not that we wanted the play to say, “Look Julius Caesar applies to Africa” so much as refresh your perspective on the play and try and get beyond the togas and the sandals to see it as a very, very modern play that has so many different analyses of the political process.

[scenes of filming on set]

Kristian Dench (first assistant):
[off-screen]: Rolling… we’re rolling.’






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