A post-colonial view of Julius Caesar.AdaptationTragedyYear of Shakespeare

  • Andrew Cowie

Edward Said – Author of ‘Orientalism’

I was moved to write this blog when I read Anjna’s thoughts on the play in her recent post. Gregory Doran’s production of Julius Caesar received five star reviews in The Sunday Times and The Independent on Sunday and four stars almost everywhere else. The cast is fantastic, the design is brilliant and the production finds contemporary parallels between Shakespeare’s play and recent African politics. In an online interview Doran describes Julius Caesar as, ‘Shakespeare’s African play’. Nelson Mandela had a copy on Robben Island so there are good reasons to place the action in Africa but the production raises the question, whose Africa is it set in?

In his 1978 book, Orientalism, Edward Said says the 18th century colonising Europeans didn’t so much discover the countries they colonised as invent them based on an assumed ‘European superiority over Oriental backwardness’. Colonial expansion was at its height during the 18th century Age of Enlightenment so to justify their right to rule the colonial powers constructed a primitive and superstitious Orient to contrast with their own sophisticated and rational Occident. As he goes on to say in his later book, Culture And Imperialism, the colonial attitude to the colonised nations was that ‘they were not like us and for that reason deserved to be ruled’.

What’s that got to do with Gregory Doran’s Julius Caesar? Well, Richard Dowden’s programme notes tell us that in Africa ‘The politics are fiercer…The tribalism of Montagues and Capulets is instantly recognisable. So is the magic of Prospero.’ This, then, is Doran’s Africa; superstitious people in a country riven by tribal loyalties and, as the play goes on to show us, in need of strong leadership. All characteristics ascribed by the 18th century colonisers to the colonised.

Superficially, Julius Caesar resembles the Baxter Theatre Centre/RSC 2009 co-production of The Tempest with the same magic and ritual. But The Tempest was staged by a South African theatre company engaged in, as Said puts it, ‘an affectionate contention with Shakespeare for the right to represent [themselves]’. A British director and a British cast affecting African accents implicitly re-asserts the right of European culture to define a generic African identity based on otherness. The continent of Africa is bigger than the USA, Europe, China and India combined and home to a billion Africans in 54 countries speaking 2,000 languages but it is reduced here to a single, homogeneous European construct: ‘Africa’.

By transposing the play to a fictional ‘Africa’ Greg Doran is saying this isn’t about us, it’s about someone else. Compare that with Lucy Bailey’s 2009 production which, even in period dress, emphatically said this is a play about us. I saw it the week after a failed backbench Labour revolt against Gordon Brown ended the careers of every one of the rebels and the play could hardly have been more urgent and relevant.

In one of the few reviews to express reservations about the Doran production Ian Shuttleworth in the Financial Times admits to some concerns that, ‘this kind of interpretation may inadvertently… evoke complacent (not to say racist) self-congratulation that we ourselves are not prone to such African-style instability and conflict.’

Have you seen the show? If so, what did you think? Does the African setting shed new light on the play or does it perpetuate colonial stereotypes?

Julius Caesar will provoke many opinions – see what the Year of Shakespeare reviewer thinks of this play later this summer ….

Listen to this response from Dr Roberta Sabbath of the English Department, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, attending a course here at The Shakespeare Centre:

Author: Andrew Cowie

Andrew Cowie is an actor, director and freelance drama facilitator living in Birmingham, England. He is an Associate Reviewer of ReviewingShakespeare.