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The 400-year-old plays of William Shakespeare are constantly reinterpreted and re-envisioned for new generations. Recently, England's Royal Shakespeare Company produced a "Julius Caesar" set in contemporary Africa. It was a hit at the World Shakespeare Festival presented in conjunction with the London Olympics, and the RSC has now brought it to America. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Gregory Doran, the artistic director of the RSC, first got the idea of doing an African Julius Caesar when he met Nelson Mandela several years ago. When Mandela had been imprisoned in Robin Island in South Africa, another prisoner had smuggled a copy of Shakespeare's complete plays into the jail.

GREGORY DORAN: And he passed it around to the other inmates, who would read the plays at night and then autograph and underline their favorite passages. You got everybody, in a way, articulating the struggle of apartheid through Shakespeare. And what Mandela himself quoted were lines from Julius Caesar.

LUNDEN: This is the passage Mandela underlined.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "JULIUS CAESAR")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Julius Caesar) Cowards die many times before their deaths, the valiant never taste of death but once. Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear, seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.

LUNDEN: Doran was also intrigued to hear that "Julius Caesar" had been translated into many African languages and that John Kani, the great South African actor, referred to it as Shakespeare's African play.

DORAN: If you look at the history of Africa in the last 50 years since many of the countries started to gain their independence, you see a pattern emerging quite often of leaders coming to power on a wave of popularity, then beginning to pull power to themselves in a one-party state, frequently then being overthrown in a military coup and then, unfortunately, that plunging the country into civil war. Well, that is the plot of "Julius Caesar."

LUNDEN: Doran realized that by resetting the play from ancient Rome to contemporary Africa, he could make Shakespeare's political thriller chillingly resonant. In Doran's production, Caesar is a petty African tyrant, assassinated by his political rivals, among them Brutus and Cassius.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "JULIUS CAESAR")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as Decius) Great Caesar...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (as Julius Caesar) Doth not Brutus bootless kneel?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (as Casca) Speak hands for me.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (as Julius Caesar) Et tu, Brute. Then fall, Caesar.

DORAN: There's something just about the sheer chaos of what is unleashed on that country that Shakespeare, I think, is trying to explore and describe. And somehow, in the African context, it just brings it more viscerally to life. It just seems more immediate and more horrifying as a result.

LUNDEN: So when the Roman mob misidentifies the poet Cinna as a conspirator, they give him a South African necklace, a tire around his neck doused with gasoline, burning him to death. When Marc Antony and Octavius Caesar take power, they wear military uniforms, and we hear screams and shots offstage as their rivals are secretly murdered. Brutus' boy servant, Lucius, becomes a boy soldier.

RAY FEARON: I mean, I've been with the RSC 14 years, and I'm an associate artist as well. And, you know, I've played quite a lot of the main leads there, but I've never been in an all-black cast.

LUNDEN: Ray Fearon plays Marc Antony.

FEARON: You know, when a soothsayer comes along, I mean, you know, when you see it in our play, you go, well, yeah. You know, in Africa and the Caribbean, there are soothsayers. You know, there's witch doctors, you know, there are. When people are talking about lions whelping in the streets and storms and - you go, yeah, that stuff happens. All of a sudden, it's alive again.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "JULIUS CAESAR")

FEARON: (as Marc Antony) And Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge, with Ate by his side come hot from hell, shall in these confines with a monarch's voice cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war, that this foul deed shall smell above the earth with carrion men groaning for burial.

LUNDEN: Fearon says it's been especially exciting to see how young audiences have responded to this interpretation of Shakespeare's classic.

FEARON: What wins out here is Shakespeare. You just see the greatness of Shakespeare, you know? No matter where you set whatever, it fits.

LUNDEN: The RSC's "Julius Caesar" plays at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through April 28th. It then moves to the Southern Theater in Columbus, Ohio, at the beginning of May. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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