Interview: Gregory Doran

Newly appointed RSC artistic director Gregory Doran talks to Tom Wicker about his Africa-set production of ‘Julius Caesar’

Gregory Doran is keeping his cards close to his chest when it comes to his plans for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Although he takes over from Michael Boyd as artistic director from September, we won’t see any of his programming until the end of 2013. ‘If I do half of what Michael has done, I’ll be a happy man,’ is the most he’ll volunteer.

But Doran has already broken new ground with his production of ‘Julius Caesar’, Shakespeare’s exploration of the Roman statesman’s assassination and its devastating aftermath, for the conspirators who kill him, and for their state. This comes to the Noël Coward Theatre next month, following an acclaimed Stratford run and a successful filmed version broadcast last month on BBC4.

Set in modern-day East Africa, it features the RSC’s first all-black cast, although Doran stresses that his version started with the setting, not this headline-friendly fact. ‘Some kind of ghetto production where a lot of black actors are just pushed together’ was the last thing he wanted.

Paterson Joseph, who plays Brutus, the conflicted architect of Caesar’s murder, feels the same: ‘The fact we’re doing it in Africa is the most important aspect. If it didn’t work, I’d be embarrassed. Like, if it was just about us saying, “We’re black, hello, we’re black – and we’re even blacker in the second half.”’

The idea took root when Doran met Nelson Mandela and discovered that several post-independence African leaders had read ‘Julius Caesar’ as ‘a sort of revolutionary textbook about regime change’. And modern spiritual offspring of Caesar-as-dictator were rife, from Idi Amin to Robert Mugabe: ‘People who have come to power on a wave of popularity, created one-party states, and been overrun, often in military coups, plunging the country into civil war,’ he says.

The notion of Shakespeare and recent African history shedding light on each other fascinated Doran. But he was cautious. ‘I’m not a director who wades in with a concept,’ he explains. ‘And with this, I didn’t want to wade in as a gay, white, middle-class director in his middle age and go, “Julius Caesar” should be done in an African context.’ That would have been patronising.’

So the ever-meticulous director spent early 2011 batting ideas around with experts on Shakespeare, Ancient Rome and modern Africa, along with many of the cast. And events in Libya gave him a new perspective on the play.

‘The big question wasn’t whether they were going to assassinate Gaddafi,’ he says. ‘It was: What would happen next? And that’s the big question in “Julius Caesar”. Are Brutus and Cassius patriotic heroes or woolly-headed idealists? What they create by killing Caesar is a vacuum into which potentially more dangerous people can come.’

Doran conjures this fractured landscape blisteringly well. Anchored by Joseph’s powerfully raw performance as Brutus and Cyril Nri’s agonised, resentful Cassius, his production gives us a world ripped from images on TV, bursting with life and colour, but bloodied by sectarianism and personal ambition. Meanwhile, the rhythm of African accents
sharpen lines dulled by classroom over-familiarity.

The casting isn’t tokenistic but evidence of a director widening his field of vision to open Shakespeare up to a greater range of people. Joseph is hugely proud of ‘Julius Caesar’ but believes that ‘if you mention Shakespeare, culturally a mental block sets in’ for some black audiences, ‘regardless of the fact that there are black people in it.”

He continues: ‘My mum, who doesn’t know a lot about theatre and only goes if I’m in something, loved the TV version. And perhaps that’s one of those instances where you might get a little crossover, from the TV to the theatre. But there’s no way of guaranteeing that.’

Some see Doran’s imminent artistic directorship as a safe choice rather than a needed regime change. He is a 25-year veteran of the RSC and his praise of Michael Boyd seems genuine. He admits that, while he enjoys the output of companies like Filter and Propeller, their high-concept end of Shakespeare interpretation isn’t his style. He starts with the play rather than the ‘how’, working with actors and creative teams to shape a production from the ground up.

But if this means evolution rather than revolution at the RSC, that needn’t be a bad thing, if it follows through into his programming. ‘Julius Caesar’ demonstrates what can be achieved by developing ideas in collaboration rather than imposing them. As Doran reflects, ‘I don’t think there’s a definitive way – a right or wrong way. The proof is in the pudding, isn’t it? It’s whether the show itself works.’

First published by Time Out