RSC brings African take on Julius Caesar

As the Royal Shakespeare Company prepares to bring its latest version of Julius Caesar to Norwich, Paterson Joseph tells ABIGAIL SALTMARSH about its African setting and his passion for the Bard.

The very first time Paterson Joseph read Shakespeare he had never even been to the theatre, let alone attempted to enjoy Britain's most prestigious playwright.

But, despite the baptism of fire, he was hooked — and today his enthusiasm is undiminished as he dons the robes of Brutus in the Royal Shakespeare Company's Julius Caesar.

'My introduction to Shakespeare was very early. I wasn't even doing drama but decided to try out for a part in a play and was given The Merchant of Venice to read,' he recalls. 'I did it and I got the part, and ever since then I have loved Shakespeare.'

Paterson, who is known to television viewers as Alan Johnson in comedy Peep Show, as well as for appearances in Survivors, Green Wing and That Mitchell and Webb Look, has taken on numerous Shakespearean guises since those early days.

He has had parts in Henry IV, King Lear and Hamlet, and tackled the title role in Othello.

'I like to approach Shakespeare rather like a modern playwright,' he explains. 'It is really all about humanity, relating a story and its characters to who we are and what we are. It is about revenge, falling in love, friendships and emotion.'

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His interpretation of Brutus is also interesting. Refusing to pigeonhole the character as a villain, he peels away the layers to reveal the humanity within the man behind the plot to bring down Caesar.

'Brutus is a great character, who is right at the heart of the play. We see his transformation from reluctant revolutionary to a man of power, and how that changes him.

'We see his relationship with his wife and his best friend, and how he deals with his own failure.'

Julius Caesar, of course, presents the themes of people power, dictatorship and the need to be in control.

It reveals how Brutus, Cassius, and other high-ranking Romans murder Caesar, because they believe his ambition will lead to tyranny.

Taking to the stage at Norwich Theatre Royal next week, this particular version of the political thriller was created to tie in with the World Shakespeare Festival and the London 2012 Festival.

Transplanted out of 'doublet and hose' and and placed against the backdrop of contemporary Africa by director Gregory Doran, the production has been well-received so far by audiences at Stratford-upon-Avon, home of the RSC.

Doran wanted to give a brand new hook to Shakespeare's tale of the battle between public duty and the private lust for power. He said: 'You go to Julius Caesar and the one thing you know is that he is going to be assassinated. It's probably the single most famous event of the ancient world and I've always been intrigued by how it seemed the second half was a dying fall.

'This stayed with me and ate at my innards a bit. I needed to find a way in which the second half would be the climax, not the anti-climax.'

A top-class cast are also bringing the play — which reputedly gave comfort and inspiration to Nelson Mandela while imprisoned on the infamous Robben Island — to life, with the highly respected stage and TV actor Jeffery Kissoon taking on the lead role.

The role Brutus' anti-Caesar co-conspirator is taken by Cyril Nri, best known for Supt Okaro in The Bill and Waking The Dead, while former Coronation Street mechanic Nathan Harding and RSC associate artist Ray Fearon plays the 'people's champion' Mark Antony.

'People seem to really connect with it,' says Paterson. 'I think they feel the African setting is very relevant today and that to some extent the political story mirrors what is happening in many African countries at the moment.

'When you look at the Arab Spring, and what is happening in places such as Syria and Tunisia, you can see the connections. At the same time, however, Julius Caesar is also a very old African story itself.'

It is, he goes on, 'an amazing play,' and one of Shakespeare's most complex dramas.

'I think it deals with emotions as well as politics in an in depth way – it shows how these characters can't be politically cold all the time.

'I also find it incredibly rich; every time we do it, there seems to be something new in there.'

Taking on the role of Brutus is a pleasure, he adds. 'He is a man of honour and he doesn't try to manipulate the crowd. He just talks to them and tells them exactly what's happened. If he was probably more manipulative, he probably would have won them over and Antony wouldn't have had a chance.'

And his passion for the part is clear. 'The thing that really narks me off is that Brutus performs this speech in front of the crowd and the crowd are wowed by it. But then Shakespeare writes this huge dialogue with Antony and the crowd and he turns them over. I'm just burning as an actor thinking can I just come on again? I had more to say!'

His passion is shared by Ray Fearon who playing the charismatic man of the people Mark Antony gets to perform the famous 'Friends, Romans, Countrymen' speech.

He said: 'It is one of those famous scenes in the Shakespeare canon and everyone will know it when they hear it. It is just so well-written.'

The show will be heading to Cardiff after Norwich and then it is off to Moscow for a stint.

Paterson then expects to go straight into more television work, which looks likely to include filming for a new ITV police drama series.

'It all seems to be working well for me at the moment, juggling television and theatre work,' he admits. 'I do love theatre but it takes up so much of your time that you do find your family life is curtailed.

'I find television much easier but I have thoroughly enjoyed doing Julius Caesar and would love to do more theatre soon — if it is the right role, in the right production, at the right time.'

But he adds: 'And, of course, if it was more Shakespeare, I would probably agree to do it like a shot!'

t Julius Caesar, Norwich Theatre Royal, October 16-20, �25-�6.50, 01603 630000,