Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Shakespeare, Brando, Branagh and an African 'Julius Caesar'

[Thoughts to a friend who has just seen the RSC's all-African Julius Caesar]
I am no expert on Shakespeare, but I know him reasonably well and long ago stopped trying to get my mind round his huge intelligence and profound insight into character, his breadth of interests and imagination and dazzling, glorious poetry, the sublime use of language. It is all as close to superhuman as you can get. Like Wagner in music, in the end just ... astonishing.
More by chance than choice, Julius Caesar is one of the plays I have seen most, I would guess, along surprisingly perhaps with The Winter's Tale. Both were set-books at school and our class went or were expected to go to performances as part of our studies, which put the two ahead on count early in life. We never really lose our first loves; they stay with us always.
And I do love Julius Caesar, especially up to the end of Antony's great speech, for its excitement and pace and Shakespeare's observations about power, how it operates and what it does to people: timeless and universal. I am sure you do not need me to tell you how relevant that message is for Africans and in Africa today, a continent where democracy is only at the beginning of its endless struggle for justice and human rights.
You say the African cast, especially Cassius, spoke very quickly, though of course I cannot know how that bruised the verse: it is, for me, still important to have it spoken with regard for its beauty as well as the drama. Having heard Ralph Fiennes, an actor I consider to be among the best, rattle off 'To be or not to be' in under a minute, presumably just to do it differently, I do find myself on the side of tradition at times. I go for Kenneth Branagh's approach to the Bard: 'my mate Shakespeare' -but knowing all the while he has in him a very remarkable mate.
I remember with special fondness the James Mason, John Gielgud, Marlon Brando film version of Julius Caesar, the one we saw at school. I fancy it sticks in my mind also because I was sat next to a very pretty six former called Janet Williams, though even Janet did not manage to take my attention off the screen for long. 
Marlon Brando looked every inch the educated Anglo-Saxon's idea at the time of a Roman patrician, a beautifully sculptured bust, and spoke his lines thrillingly and, to all the critics' great wonder after his mumblings in A Streetcar named Desire and Viva Zapata, perfectly clearly. But I regret I do not find him now the person Mark Antony really was, or that Shakespeare had in mind, a wild and passionate man who 'revels long o'nights' and loves his friends.
At least you are in no doubt about that last quality from Marlon Brando's performance. Left alone in the Capitol, if you should manage to catch the film one day on TV, is his finest moment, speaking over Caesar's bloody corpse - 'O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth, that I am meek and gentle with these butchers ...'
Phew. Wow.


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