Paterson Joseph: Julius Caesar and Me

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 98

In 2012 the Royal Shakespeare Company staged the first-ever, high-profile, all-black British Shakespeare production, Julius Caesar, set in Africa. The actor who played Brutus, Paterson Joseph, recently wrote a book about the experience called Julius Caesar and Me: Exploring Shakespeare’s African Play.

On this podcast episode, he also talks about his early work, his thoughts about race in the British theater, about the proper way to play Brutus, and much more. Paterson Joseph is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Listen on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, or NPR One.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published May 29, 2018. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, Bear It, As Our Roman Actors Do, was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquardt at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Robert Auld and Deb Stathopulos at the Radio Foundation in New York. We’d also like to thank ‘Illuminations’ for allowing us to use excerpts from their DVD of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2012 production of Julius Caesar

Paterson Joseph is an acclaimed British actor who has performed major roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, including the title role in Othello and the leads in The Royal Hunt of the Sun and The Emperor Jones. He has also worked extensively in film, and in television, including recently The Leftovers and Timeless. In 2015, he wrote and performed his one-man play Sancho: An Act of Remembrance on tour.

Julius Caesar and Me: Exploring Shakespeare’s African Play was published in the US by Methuen Drama, a division of Bloomsbury Books, in 2018. Read an excerpt on the Shakespeare & Beyond blog.

Previous: Stephen Alford: London's Triumph | Next: Antioch Shakespeare Festival: John Lithgow, Robin Lithgow, and Tony Dallas


Transcript

MICHAEL WITMORE: A few years ago, the Royal Shakespeare Company decided to make what was, for them, a groundbreaking choice. In 2012—76 years after it was first done in the US, 15 years after it was first done in Canada—the RSC decided to stage the first-ever high-profile, all-black British Shakespeare production: Julius Caesar, set in Africa. As it turns out, the experience was so remarkable that the actor who played Brutus decided to write a book about it.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s Director. The actor was Paterson Joseph. And the book is Julius Caesar and Me: Exploring Shakespeare’s African Play.

Joseph was at the National Black Theater in Harlem recently, performing his one-man show, Sancho: An Act of Remembrance, about the first black man in England to cast a vote. We invited him into the studio for a talk.

Julius Caesar and Me takes an unflinching look at Joseph’s experiences at the RSC, both his time in 2012 doing Caesar, and in the 1990s, when this son of St. Lucian parents found himself one of only four black people in the building. He also talks about his early work, performing the sharp and boldly reimagined Shakespeare of the Cheek by Jowl company, and his thoughts about race in the British theater, about the proper way to play Brutus, about Received Pronunciation, and much more.

We call this podcast “Bear It, As Our Roman Actors Do.” Paterson Joseph is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

-----------------------

BARBARA BOGAEV:  Paterson, you write in your book that before you started work on this RSC production, you had some doubts of your own about whether it was appropriate to set Julius Caesar in Africa. So what were you concerned about?

PATERSON JOSEPH: I think it's just one of those things that, as a performer who happens to be black, sometimes you have to be a bit careful about not allowing that to be a sort of shtick really, and like, “Oh look, we're going to do a black production, so let's get some black actors in.” So I wanted to be very careful. I sort of sidled into it just to make sure that it was all above board and we were doing this for the sound reasons, not just because it would be fashionable. But no, it was a well-founded reason for doing the show, so that wiped out that fear.

BOGAEV:  Yeah, I imagine some of what you’re talking about maybe comes under that category of the “Disneyfication” of Africa, a concern about that?

JOSEPH: Yes. Yes, I don’t know where he got that from, but it’s a Cyril Nri, who played Cassius in this production, it’s one of his phrases. But I think it's a good catch-all phrase to say “Look.” I think the Irish have the same thing. They call it “fiddly-dee Irish.” Sometimes when Americans do Irish, they’re all kind of leprechaun-y? And for Irish people it feels really insulting. I lived in Dublin for some time, I have very many Irish friends and they do balk at that. So I think the equivalent is, yes, the Disneyfication of Africa, sort of making Africa look exotic.

BOGAEV:  Right, so you did have these leprechaun-ish issues going on, and you say that even before the read-through you went in to talk to the RSC about this production, and that the director, Greg Doran, pretty much won you over. How did he do it, and what was his explanation of why Julius Caesar is Shakespeare's African play?

JOSEPH: Well, one of the things he said to me was, “Look, I’ve wanted to do this play for very many years, decades in fact.” Whenever a director starts conversation like that, I tend to be on side already, because a burning desire to do a show is not the same as, “Look, it's on the schedule. We’ve got to do it.” Which obviously happens in a big institution at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

BOGAEV:  Right, and “Oh, this time, let’s do it all black.”

JOSEPH: Exactly, yes, but this time I really felt very strongly that Greg's connection with the African continent was personal. His husband is Sir Anthony Sher, who’s a South African-born actor.

BOGAEV:  Recently on our podcast.

JOSEPH: Ah, well, yes, one of our great, obviously, Shakespearean actors. So that he had sound reasons for doing it, because he’d also spoken to the leading figures in South African theater. John Carney in particular, who was a stalwart actor at the Market Theatre in the time of Apartheid, working with Athol Fugard and the other great playwrights at that theater, and it was John who said, “Well, it’s clearly Shakespeare African play, because it follows a certain pattern. Not all African countries have been through this, but more than we’d like. A great leader, a rebel, usually prosecuted by the authorities, then released, becomes the leader. Everybody follows him, and there’s a consolidation of power, which leads to a kind of dictatorship.

[CLIP from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar]

Jeffery Kissoon as CAESAR:
Men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive.
Yet in the number I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshaked of motion…

JOSEPH: A coup, a vacuum, civil war, and chaos…

[CLIP continues]

CAESAR:
                          … and that I am he
Let me a little show it, even in this…

JOSEPH: I mean, it’s in other nations too, but it’s a very African pattern, so I can see why John said that. But the thing, the killer blow for me, was what we call the Robben Island Shakespeare, which is… The Bhagavad Gita was allowed into Robben Island. The prisoners who were there, and the Apartheid regime, when they wanted to get rid of a lot of the A.N.C. leaders, they didn’t murder them thankfully, they put a lot of them in prison on that island. But they were allowed some religious books, and the Bhagavad Gita came in… but inside was the Complete Works of Shakespeare, and I think—

BOGAEV:  This was actually our very first podcast on this series.

JOSEPH: I mean, what a wonderful way to start. I mean, there’s such humor about that, and I love humor in darkness. They were so cheeky. They thought, “Listen, the authorities are so dumb, they won’t even open this book,” and then this was, as you know, handed around to many of the—well, all of the inmates had a go at it, and everybody annotated their favorite section, and the most annotated in that prison at that time was Julius Caesar.

BOGAEV:  And Greg told that story at this meeting?

JOSEPH: Mm, yes.

BOGAEV:  It's so interesting to talk about this as if it's something new, because this process of reframing Shakespeare in Africa, it's something that has happened before on the continent in the 1960s, and we've talked about it on this podcast too, that Julius Caesar was staged all over Africa in a lot of different African languages.

JOSEPH: Yeah, there you go. That’s the whole Shakespeare’s African play thing, mirrored a bit like The Crucible, often it is The Crucible done a lot in Central America, and widely done in dictatorial situations. Yeah, I think there’s…

BOGAEV:  Exactly, subversively. Really just the way Shakespeare, in Shakespeare’s time, these plays about anarchy or revolution or ones who were critical of the monarchy were just thinly disguised by setting them in another time period or country.

JOSEPH: Yeah, I mean we’re looking at 1599, aren’t we, and the succession to the throne of Elizabeth I. This whole idea of “There’s gonna be a change in regime, but who is gonna be in charge, and will there be a sort of coup?”

BOGAEV:  Well, that's true, and this place where anarchy flows in, and then the play picks up on that. That's where Julius Caesar takes the story. This emotional and psychological toll, that political reality takes on conspirators that plays out in the domestic realm, and that's essentially your Brutus's story, and you write that Brutus says your favorite political line in all of Shakespeare. “The abuse of greatness…” 

[CLIP from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar]

Paterson Joseph as BRUTUS:
Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins
Remorse from power.

JOSEPH: Mm, such a great line, isn’t it? It’s so well balanced.

[CLIP continues]

BRUTUS:
             And, to speak truth of Caesar,
I have not known when his affections swayed
More than his reason. But ’tis a common proof
That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But, when he once attains the upmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend.

JOSEPH: I mean, I think about Bashar al-Assad, and I wonder about him. You know, he was educated partly in the UK. So was his wife. I can’t believe they didn’t imbibe some of that tradition of fair play. I know that’s part cliché, but there is a lot of that in the British still. I can’t believe that he can be that cold-hearted about his people, that there must be a struggle somewhere in that man, but he has literally done what Shakespeare wants. He’s disjointed remorse from power.

[CLIP from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar]

BRUTUS:
It must be by his death. And for my part
I know no personal cause to spurn at him,
But for the general. He would be crowned…

BOGAEV:  Well, the question I have for you, as an actor, is how you come to grips with the moral compromise that Brutus does make in this infamous argument with himself in this passage, in order to play this role? You say how you saw it is, “Am I morally justified in assassinating Caesar for what he might become and what he might do?”

[CLIP from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar]

BRUTUS:
                       And since the quarrel
Will bear no color for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus: that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities.
And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg,
Which, hatched, would, as his kind, grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.

JOSEPH: I think at that point he has already in his heart decided it has to happen, and now he has to bring a kind of logical argument to it, because he is, you know, he’s a Stoic. So he has to think it through. But…

BOGAEV:  So he’s enunciating it for himself. Because that’s how you play it, I would say.

JOSEPH: Yeah, that’s exactly how I wanted to play it. I wanted him to think it through there and then.

[CLIP from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar]

BRUTUS:
Thus must I piece it out:
Shall Rome stand under one man’s awe? What, Rome?
My ancestors did from the streets of Rome
The Tarquin drive when he was called a king.
“Speak, strike, redress!”

JOSEPH: The dictatorship that’s going to lead to a monarchy can only be stopped by the death of Caesar. Now, how do I justify that in myself, and allow myself to sleep, because I haven’t been sleeping? But he has to fight this with logic, and the logic he brings is “This is to stop what will happen in the future, what I believe Caesar will become,” and it’s not a very convincing argument in some ways, but it’s the best he can come up with.

[CLIP from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar]

BRUTUS:
O Rome, I make thee promise,
If the redress will follow, thou receivest
Thy full petition at the hand of Brutus.

BOGAEV:  Can we talk about the accent now? Because we hear in this clip, you're not speaking received pronunciation but a kind of African accent and that the whole production, naturally, is in this accent. It’s set somewhere in a Africa, and that this was originally your idea, at least the accent part of it. Tell us about that, because you say it was a bit of a controversial issue.

JOSEPH: What I specifically wanted was an accent that was not syllabic. West African tends to be syllabic, and that means a heavy emphasis on most syllables obviously, and it lends itself to poetry to the extent that if it's rhythmic poetry it's great, because it has the duh-di-duh-di-duh-di-duh-di-duh-di in it anyway. But because we know that this is an underlying rhythm, that the iambic pentameter rhythm is an underlying rhythm, and we don’t hit it strongly. We don’t go “To be or not to be, that is the question,” because that’s not how people speak.

So in order to make it smooth, and we don’t have something that… forgive the… I’m rather doing it just off the top of my head, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” We don’t want that, because what that does is it makes you listen to the rhythm rather than the words. On the eastern side of Africa, there is a more, I would describe it as a more lyrical way of speaking. So that instead of having “To be or not to be, that is the question,” you would have, “To be or not to be, that is the question,” and I thought that that would lend itself very well to the rhetorical speeches in Shakespeare, in a way that perhaps The Comedy of Errors might really lend itself to the syllabic West African sound.

BOGAEV:  This is so interesting. This is explaining how you picked the accent that you did pick, because as you say or imply, Africa is a continent of what, some 1,500 languages, and even more dialects and accents, and your initial idea though to use this East African accent I understand wasn’t all that popular with the cast.

JOSEPH: Well, when we think about this in terms of the African diaspora, the slave trade was largely conducted off the west coast of Africa. We’re talking about what they call the Guinea Coast, so we’re talking about Ghana, Nigeria, and those nations transposed, if you like, their rhythms to English, in some cases French. But you can still hear in Jamaican, in Barbajan, or Bajan, as we like to say, people from Barbados, Grenadine and St. Lucians, there is a syllabic quality. For the most part, the people who were in the production were from that origin. Either Caribbean or directly West African. So for us, if you like, that’s the easiest way to do an African accent is to go directly to Ghana or Nigeria, and so pulling it across the continent and saying, “Let’s try East African because it will give us a different flavor,” and after all, this is a fictional African country, so we don’t have to base it on our ethnicities if you like. There was a bit of, “Wait a minute…”

BOGAEV:  Hold on. [LAUGHTER]

JOSEPH: This is much easier for us to do like this. Yes, you know the accent because you trained at it, but we don’t.” Now, I had only mooted that, I hadn’t said that I was going to do it. I said that, “Look Greg, if we did an accent, what do you think it will be? My suggestion would be this,” and so we had a bit of a discussion about it.

BOGAEV:  And I love your story about some friend of yours in New York thought you were doing a Scottish accent.

JOSEPH: Oh lordy. Yeah, that fella. I mean, bless his heart. We were in London, and he thought I was doing Welsh. Now, how and why, I can’t figure out now, but you know, he was a man of a certain age, and maybe mine was the strongest East African accent because I was the most confident. But to go, “It must be by his death,” and then if you were doing it in Welsh, “It must be by his death.” I was thinking, “What?” and I spent hours afterwards in the middle of the night going, “It must be by his de—” of course it sounds Welsh, and the fact that he said…

BOGAEV:  [LAUGHS] It’s really throwing you for a loop.

JOSEPH: You know, “Richard Burton, that wonderful Valleys accent. Anthony Hopkins—“ and I was like, “Did I sound like that?” It took me a long time to get over that, but thankfully everybody laughed at it when I told them and I got over it.

[CLIP from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar]

Theo Ogundipe as the SOOTHSAYER:
Beware the ides of March.

Jeffery Kissoon as CAESAR: What man is that?

Paterson Joseph as BRUTUS:
A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.

CAESAR:
Set him before me. Let me see his face.

Cyril Nri as CASSIUS:
Fellow, come from the throng.

BOGAEV:  Well, besides the accents, what else was African about this production?

[CLIP continues]

            CAESAR: Let us leave him. Pass! [Music, drums as CAESAR exits]

JOSEPH: Physicality, I think. The way of expressing oneself. The way that you can become very fiery very suddenly and express yourself in a fiery way and then pull back.

BOGAEV:  And just for people who didn't see it too, there were some very basic things, including, at least when you were in Stratford, a whole production in the beginning and the opening, with a chorus, with dancing…

[CLIP: Music and drums, and singing, “Oh, Caesar, Caesar…”]

JOSEPH: Honestly, this was the point at which I remember one of the other actors sidling up to me and saying, “This could go very badly.” Because what could have been awful, of course, is that you could start the production going, “Well we’ve set this in Africa… well, not a very good job at setting up Africa, but here’s a bit of dancing about in a marketplace.”

BOGAEV:  Ah, a kind of Lion King gloss.

JOSEPH: Oh dear.

BOGAEV:  That would’ve been horrific.

JOSEPH: So that would have been a proper Disneyfication of the whole setup. But because we have this wonderful choreographer, Diane Mitchell [Diane Alison-Mitchell], she knew how to ground us I think in an African physical expression, and then we had Then we had a [Akintayo] “‘Tayo” Akinbode, who was wonderful with the music, and so setting up a New African nation helped us, not just ground us in the African setting, but helped us to understand the passion with which we were going to do this play, the sort of openness and physicality that we were going to do this play in, and it worked.

[CLIP from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar]

Cyril Nri as CASSIUS:
Most noble brother, you have done me wrong.

BRUTUS: 

Judge me, you gods! Wrong I mine enemies?
And if not so, how should I wrong a brother?

CASSIUS:
Brutus, this sober form of yours hides wrongs,
And when you do them—

BRUTUS: 
Cassius, be content.
Speak your griefs softly. I do know you well.

BOGAEV:  Julius Caesar speaks on so many levels. As you point out, it’s political, but Shakespeare is really brilliant at bringing the domestic to the political. You definitely see this played out in Brutus's scenes with his wife Portia, and of course in this close relationship he has with his conspirator and friend Cassius. You write early on that you realize that Brutus and Cassius carry the emotional through-line of the play. That scene after scene, you two are either conspiring or violently arguing, and one of the obvious examples of this is the tent scene, after Caesar has been killed, and Brutus and Cassius, they’re wrangling.

[CLIP from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar]

BRUTUS:
Before the eyes of both our armies here
(Which should perceive nothing but love from us),
Let us not wrangle.

JOSEPH: Oh, yeah, wrangling is a very polite term. Bickering is also a very polite term. I don’t know, anybody who’s got a sibling, and you have a dispute with them, they’re the people who can touch a button in you that delivers a rage that no one else can touch, and these two very smart men… they almost get to the point of going, “Oh, you think you’re the big one?” “No, you think you’re the big one.” “I’m older than you.” “You’re older than me, but I’m stronger than you.” and literally you think, “These men are the highest intellect in Rome?” There was a rehearsal where we just went all out and drove at each other like children, really demonstrating that part of the text, and it worked like a dream.

BOGAEV:  Oh, that’s fantastic. because I always found the scene so confusing. I didn’t even know what it was about. Some guy we never heard of maybe took a bribe, and maybe he didn’t, and all of a sudden…

JOSEPH: Who cares? Who cares about this guy?

BOGAEV:  Yeah, all of a sudden they’re shouting at each other.

[CLIP from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar]

CASSIUS:
That you have wronged me doth appear in this:
You have condemned and noted Lucius Pella
For taking bribes here of the Sardians,
Wherein my letters, praying on his side
Because I knew the man, was slighted off.

BRUTUS: 
You wronged yourself to write in such a case.

CASSIUS: 
In such a time as this it is not meet
That every nice offense should bear his comment.

BRUTUS: 
Let me tell you, Cassius, you yourself
Are much condemned to have an itching palm…

JOSEPH: The truth of the matter is the argument is about you two. It’s about power, and it’s about, “We did this thing. It went wrong. Whose fault was it?” and rather than talking about that, they talk about somebody else. As we do, right?

BOGAEV:  As we do.

JOSEPH: “You’ve taken my Cheerios! How dare…  I told you, that was my milk! You’ve taken my milk out of the fridge!”  But that’s not what it’s about, and that’s the genius of Shakespeare’s domestic scenes. He makes his characters, I think I do say it at some point, he boils them down to their human essence.

[CLIP from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar]

CASSIUS:
You forget yourself
To hedge me in. I am a soldier, I,
Older in practice, abler than yourself
To make conditions.

BRUTUS: Go to! You are not, Cassius.

CASSIUS: I am.

BRUTUS: I say you are not.

CASSIUS:
Urge me no more. I shall forget myself.
Have mind upon your health. Tempt me no farther.

BRUTUS: Away, slight man!

CASSIUS:
Is ’t possible?

BRUTUS: Hear me, for I will speak.
Must I give way and room to your rash choler?
Shall I be frighted when a madman stares?

CASSIUS:
O you gods, you gods, must I endure all this?

BRUTUS:
All this? Ay, more. Fret till your proud heart break.

JOSEPH: That is the genius of Shakespeare, is his domesticity. Portia, look at that. You know, he’s just Brutus, wrestled with himself, seen the conspirators, shown them his strength, told them not to kill Antony, even though he really had to push back on that. They’ve gone, and here he is, just about to, you know, go off and do the deed, and here comes Portia, saying, “How come you haven’t come to bed?”

[CLIP from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar]

BRUTUS:
Wherefore rise you now?
It is not for your health thus to commit
Your weak condition to the raw cold morning.

Adjoa Andoh as PORTIA:
Nor for yours neither. You’ve ungently, Brutus,
Stole from my bed. And yesternight at supper
You suddenly arose and walked about,
Musing and sighing, with your arms across,
And when I asked you what the matter was,
You stared upon me with ungentle looks.
I urged you further; then you scratched your head
And too impatiently stamped with your foot.
Yet I insisted; yet you answered not,
But with an angry wafture of your hand
Gave sign for me to leave you. So I did,

JOSEPH: And he says nothing. This rather verbose man says nothing to her for ages, so she has to keep… Shakespearean women do not badger their men. They’re very much cleverer than that, thank you very much. Shakespeare’s written characters that are intelligent, all of them, and so she touches him where it hurts: his truth, his honesty.

[CLIP from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar]

PORTIA:
No, my Brutus,
You have some sick offense within your mind,
Which by the right and virtue of my place
I ought to know of. And upon my knees
I charm you, by my once commended beauty,
By all your vows of love, and that great vow
Which did incorporate and make us one,
That you unfold to me, your self, your half,
Why you are heavy,

JOSEPH: It’s a beautiful, emotional, logical argument that totally floors him, and it’s so domestic and beautiful.

BOGAEV:  It is, and Brutus is very, very accessible in the way that you play him. In fact, he whips back and forth in his loyalties and his emotions, and as the play goes on, he’s increasingly unstable. Of course, he hears people talking to him.

JOSEPH: Schizophrenic, practically.

BOGAEV:  Yeah, well that’s it, and as I watched the RSC production, I remembered your performance on an American TV show, The Leftovers. You…

JOSEPH: Oh, that guy, Holy Wayne. Oh my gosh, what a madman.

BOGAEV:  You played a cult leader… well, right. Although you play him as a mad person who’s very sane, or perhaps maybe a sane person who is totally mad.

JOSEPH: Yes, yes, yes.

BOGAEV:  It’s really fascinating.

JOSEPH: Well that’s it. Yeah, no, you caught it in a nutshell actually, that juxtaposition. I think it was, possibly a Laurence Olivier quote, but he may have got it from somewhere else, where if you’re playing somebody who’s old, find out where they’re young in spirit, and if they’re meant to be young, find out where they’re a little old, and I think that works for everything, that there should always be a kind of juxtaposition between what you’re meant to be, because we’re all a mixture of one thing and another. And with Brutus, I’d noticed very early on, as I say in the book, how quixotic I suppose you could say he is. You have to be, I thought, on the moment, because if you set up this blanket “He is a Stoic,” it would not only be rather boring, but also you’d make him less human, and that’s the beauty and the genius of Shakespeare, that he can balance those two things so easily.

BOGAEV:  Well, we’re talking about Brutus in Julius Caesar, but we should say that this wasn't your first experience at the RSC, that you first worked…

JOSEPH: It wasn’t my first rodeo.

BOGAEV:  No, you’d been around, and you first worked on a production there way back in 1990, when you said that you were the only black actor, maybe the only black employee anywhere in the RSC, and that you were painfully aware that you were a “curiosity.” So…

JOSEPH: Yeah, so I wasn’t the only black actor, but yeah. No, there were four of us in a company of 85.

BOGAEV:  Ah, now what is it that people do to make one feel like a curiosity?

JOSEPH: I think just, if you had four women in a company of 85, you’d be a curiosity as well, and actually people wouldn’t notice you in a way that you would not be noticed if there were 20 women, and in some ways it’s a pressure on you, and it’s a pressure on the organization. Because if you’ve got those four actors, you’ve got to do something about that. You couldn’t have a token, you’d have to put them in positions of prominence. Now, it’s fine. You’ve hired four people. You’ve presumably gone through the whole process, they’re four people who can handle what they have to handle in order to do the job well. But what if they go, “Well, oh gosh, we haven’t got any. Let’s get five in.” And they’re not quite up to the mark. Because it’s going to happen. What happens then? When people go, “Well of course, yes. That’s why they don’t have them here, because they’re not very good.” The RSC, the very first time I was there—it wasn’t the institution that was doing it to me, it was the fact of me being only one of four.

I mean, also, by the way, there were about three Irish people. Clearly Irish people, clearly as in accents, and I remember a review saying, “The RSC has gone young, black and Irish.” I’m like, “Mm, who represents that? Not me, I mean, it’s not me. Who are they talking about? They’re talking about the…”

BOGAEV:  It sounds like a board game or a quiz show.

JOSEPH: I know, I know, and you know, these things still come back unfortunately. They do come back every now and then.

BOGAEV:  Well, I’m thinking that, because 20 years later, you’re at the RSC and here you are in an all-black production and it’s set in Africa. This seems a whole new world, but you say when the show went to London, the public relations staff pulled all the black actors aside and kind of said, “So, black colleagues, how do we get these black people to come to the show?” [LAUGHTER]

JOSEPH: Yeah, I mean, embarrassing for them. I do, I mean honestly, I have some sympathy.

BOGAEV:  With good intentions, yes.

JOSEPH: Really good intentions, because of course they didn’t want it just to be white people seeing the show. But, honestly speaking, please look ahead. I think that the RSC has certainly made some inroads and they learned a lot from our production, but you know, it was the first. So I can see why it was a new thing for them, but we were in 2012. It was a struggle for us to not be insulted by that, but at the same time, we all thought, “Well, you got to get bums on seats,” and you know, the black British populace, and I’ll say this very freely, are not brilliant at supporting black performers in classical plays. Partly because it’s not part of their culture, that’s not the thing that they do. We’re not great theater-goers, that’s just the truth of it, and also there seems to be, in terms of theater in the UK, an educational level that has to be reached before you see people; I mean, I’m talking about white working-class people, seeing people in the theater, because it’s not part of their tradition.

Why? I would say, it goes back to school. The majority of grammar schools, which are the schools that have the sort of pupils with the best records, and private schools where you pay, have a big arts side to them. So it becomes part of your culture as a kid. If you suddenly are asked at 25, and you’ve never had any dealings with theater, “You should be going to the theater.” “Why?” “Because there are black people in it.” I don’t go to rock concerts, not because I don’t like rock, but because I was never introduced to it as a kid. Unless it’s introduced at an early stage, it’s very hard to get people into a theater, and I think that’s part of the issue too.

BOGAEV:  Well, that brings up this big final question I guess, which is what the place is for black performers in Shakespeare today, because we started this conversation talking about how your cast members, one of them in particular, said that they felt, “Here, finally, we’re in this all-black cast, and I feel like an individual again. I feel individuated again.”

JOSEPH: Hmm, yes. Lovely word. Yeah, that’s Adjoa Andoh again. Yes, once again, yeah.

BOGAEV:  Yeah, and it made me think, here you have performers and directors who feel that we are in a post-race place in theater and film, but some feel just the opposite. I mean, for instance, Greg Doran at the RSC had a black Cordelia. You know, there’s quite a bit of diversity casting as you say now at the RSC. But diversity casting is still a way to make an exception for different races. So how do you see this point in Shakespearean theater vis-à-vis of your race?

JOSEPH: Yeah, that’s a big question. I think the ideal is that there is no difference between an actor of Indian ethnicity, African, Afro-Caribbean ethnicity, or any of the European ethnicities or Middle Eastern, et cetera. I think that when we get to a place when we’re not seeing it, that's ideal. Why could you get away with this in theater, in a way you can’t get away with it so much, or not allowed to get away with it so much, on film? Because film traditionally has been a depiction of, quote-unquote, “reality.” In the theater, because you've already gone in there and pretended that this stage, which is in at the middle of London, is actually Africa, and these people on stage are in funny costumes, and they’re pretending to be dukes and duchesses, but I know that guy, he’s in that soap opera that I watch. That reality’s within you and is within the performance, and as long as they’re convincing and are convinced, you all tend to be convinced too.

BOGAEV:  And more specifically to Shakespeare? You know, in the 1980s, playwrights like August Wilson said black performers don’t need Shakespeare. They should be doing work by black writers. Is that time passed as well, or do you still feel that there isn’t quite an equal place at the table for black artists in the Shakespeare theater world?

JOSEPH: I just think it’s what you want to do. I mean, if I want to do Shakespeare, I should be allowed to do Shakespeare, right? I mean, if I don’t, if I think it’s not my interest, then I’m allowed to ignore it. I don’t know if Shakespeare should be seen as anything other than one of the playwrights, of course. For those of us who loves him, he’s the greatest. But not everybody loves him, and that’s okay. That doesn’t make them philistines or stupid. It just means he hasn’t hit them. He hasn’t—the bug hasn’t been sort of delivered to them, if you like. The Shakespeare virus. But those of us who caught him early, or caught him at a time when they were forming their own opinions about what the world was, we’ll always feel an ownership of Shakespeare, no matter who tells us we’re allowed to or not. It’s nothing to do with an outside authority telling us he’s ours or not. It’s to do with our own desire to connect with him, and to connect with his themes, which are universal and international, and should never ever be ethnically put in a box.

BOGAEV:  Well, I’m really glad you caught the bug so I can get a chance to talk with you on this podcast. Thank you so much, Paterson.

JOSEPH: Thank you. Thanks so much.

-----------------------

WITMORE: Paterson Joseph is an actor and playwright. His book about the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2012 production of Julius Caesar is called, Julius Caesar and Me: Exploring Shakespeare’s African Play. It was published in the US by Methuen Drama, a division of Bloomsbury Books, in 2018. He was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

“Bear It, As Our Roman Actors Do” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer.

We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquardt at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Robert Auld and Deb Stathopulos at the Radio Foundation in New York. We’d also like to thank Illuminations for allowing us to use excerpts from their DVD of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2012 production of Julius Caesar.

On recent episodes of Shakespeare Unlimited, I’ve asked that you rate and review us on iTunes. This time, I’d like to tell you why that matters:  podcasts with lots of ratings are the ones more likely to be suggested to other listeners. If you’re enjoying Shakespeare Unlimited and you think that others—people you don’t know—might enjoy it too, the best way to let them know is to rate and review the podcast. Thank you so much for your help.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library.  Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts.  You can find more about the Folger at our website, Folger.edu.  For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.