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Shakespeare with an African Twist

MAGIC FROM THE MOTHERLAND: Adjoa Andoh with co-star Patterson Joseph in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s African adaptation of the classic tale Julius Caesar

THE STRUGGLE for power or control of a nation is a concept that is as old as man itself. And in a new adaptation of Julius Caesar, the Royal Shakespeare Company brings the tale of treachery, murder and war to 21st century Africa.

Written by Shakespeare over 400 years ago, the play was based upon the famed Roman general who was assassinated in 44 BC, after refusing to relinquish power to the senate.

In this reworked version, actress Adjoa Andoh plays Portia, the wife of Brutus (played by Paterson Joseph), who is one of the assassins of Julius Caesar. She is also historically noted as being the only woman aware of the plan against the Roman leader.

Speaking to Life & Style the Casualty actress explained how setting the play in Africa allows the production to move from ancient times to a modern day plane, where parallels of the recent revolutions could be seen as history repeating itself.

“It [Julius Caesar] talks about the idea of what happens when one form of leadership is torn down, what replaces it afterwards and what’s at stake when you decide to depose a leader,” says Andoh. “It examines the political struggle of finding a way that works for your nation and what it costs people who stick to their values.

“It is a conversation that has been going on in Africa since the end of colonial rule and is still as relevant today as it was in Elizabethan times.”

Starring an all-black cast that includes Jeffery Kissoon, Cryil Nri and Ray Fearon, the production of this tragedy was partly inspired by the fact that Julius Caesar was the favourite play of Nelson Mandela whilst he was imprisoned on Robben Island for 18 years during apartheid.

“It’s not just a Julius Caesar that happens to be black,” says the actress, who is of Ghanaian descent. “It’s a Julius Caesar that is physically set in east Africa, which has all sorts of resonances. When Nelson Mandela was incarcerated, one of the prisoners managed to sneak a copy of Shakespeare’s works into the prison, by covering it in a Sikh religious text cover.

“They shared it amongst the prisoners and called it the Robben Island Bible. Mandela initialed it as his favourite play. A lot of political leaders of that era regarded Julius Caesar as the African play.”
According to Andoh, it is not only the instability of governments that links Africa and the times of Julius Caesar, but also the richness of the continent’s traditions.

“In Africa, spiritual people are a big part of the community. And the prominence of the market place where people come together and discuss things is still a big part of African society. In more western countries, we have lost that culture.”

She adds: “The richness of storytelling and language is something I am very aware of when I am in Ghana, and it is reminiscent of Shakespeare.

“The story of African culture is quite often of aid or famine or turmoil, and actually it has a huge traditional wealth of literature.”

Julius Caesar is at the Royal Shakespeare Company until July 7. For more information, visit www.rsc.org.uk

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