Shakespeare’s ‘African’ play comes to Aylesbury

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A despot is overthrown in a coup by a group of partisans who take control and then find themselves creating the same tyranny.

The story is as old as time but give the rebels AK-47s and machetes, set the action in a minor African state, and you have a muscle version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that is bang up to date and set to thrill audiences .

Greg Dolan, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s incoming artistic director, starts off his reign with a revolutionary take (literally) on the Bard’s story about the thirst for power, the corruption of integrity, civil war and murder in an unstable Rome.

It was said to be a story, illicitly smuggled in, that got Nelson Mandela through his long years as a political prisoner and it’s known as Shakespeare’s Africa play.

This Rome is in war-torn Africa and the cast is made up of some of this country’s leading black actors who jumped at the chance to be included in a production that is an integral part of this year’s World Shakespeare Festival.

Some of them know at first hand the suffering caused by dictatorships. Their families have fled Uganda’s Idi Amin or escaped the famines of Biafra. If it hasn’t affected them personally then they know someone who has.

Greg said: “One of the inspirations behind setting Julius Caesar in Africa was discovering the Robben Island Shakespeare and that Mandela had chosen to autograph lines from the play.

“If you consider the history of the continent since independence over the last 50 or 60 years it has witnessed a series of freedom fighters turned democratically elected presidents, turned despotic rulers, who have pulled all the power to themselves in one party states.

“The fear of that tyranny has led to multiple military coups, assassinations and civil wars which continue to ravage the continent. Caesar could be Amin or Bokassa, Mobutu or Mugabe.”

For Doran his world has come full circle. He appeared in Julius Caesar when he joined the RSC as an actor 25 years ago. Now he’s back in charge of the company and determined to tell the complete story – making what happens to the characters after that famous assassination as important as the build-up.

“When we had the Arab Spring last year the big question on everyone’s mind wasn’t what will happen to Gaddafi – it was what would replace him when he went,” said the director. “That’s the big question about Julius Caesar.”

Julius Caesar comes to Aylesbury Waterside Theatre from September 19-22.

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