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Paterson Joseph talks to Freetime about Shakespeare and Peep Show
FOR Paterson Joseph Shakespeare's grasp on humanity is what makes the playwright so powerful. The actor is currently playing Brutus in the Royal Shakespeare Company's Julius Caesar, set in Africa, which he said is a great role in a great production. He talks to Freetime about making Shakespeare's work accessible for all and what it means to him.
Paterson Joseph does not read reviews, which is a shame because Julius Caesar has been getting amazing reviews from the critics. The new production has been playing in Stratford Upon Avon and in London's West End.
And in September it will begin a short UK tour at Aylesbury Waterside Theatre. A televised version was broadcast on BBC4 in June as part of the BBC’s Shakespeare Unlocked season for London2012, and as I said the reviews have been great.
But Paterson said: "I get put off by them really. If they are rubbish they can encourage you to be better to fight against it. "If they are great you end up thinking I am really great and brilliant in the moment they have mentioned and you end up not focusing on that moment. I find them a distraction."
He stars as Brutus, opposite Ray Fearon as Mark Antony, Jeffery Kissoon as Julius Caesar, Cyril Nri as Cassius and Adjoa Andoh as Portia.
This concept of the political thriller is set in Africa. With echoes of the recent overthrow of dictators during the ‘Arab Spring’, the production explores the implications of political assassination and the unpredictability of its aftermath.
And Paterson said he took just a second to think about it. The show is cast with Black British actors and directed by RSC Chief Associate Director Gregory Doran. He met with Greg and some of the cast and discussed the concept, before reading the play in African accents.
He said: "As soon as that happened I thought this is a brilliant idea. It seemed to tie in well with most of us."
And the actor who has starred in Hustle, Green Wing and Peep Show said setting it in Africa allows it to be more realistic to today. He said: "It means you can open up the place so it doesn't become a museum piece.
"When you see people in togas in modern productions you think why are they in togas? It suddenly feels it is not right.It doesn't feel a very western concept.
"But as soon as you set it somewhere other than the West it suddenly comes alive."
He added that in Africa there are soothsayers, wise men and people who believes in signs so the piece is more relevant. And the story also rings true of The Arab Spring, as a wave of rulers have been forced from power in the Arab World from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya.
Paterson said: "It is very disturbing when you are doing a play and you suddenly think this is true to today. Sometimes it is more domestic things but it can be great political things.
"In terms of political I think about Gaddafi."
And it also hit a note with him after the death of film maker, Tony Scott, who jumped from a bridge in Los Angeles Harbour on August 19.
Paterson said at the end of the play when Brutus would rather jump into the pit of death rather than wait for his enemies to push him in, the cast talked about Tony and he said it broke him a bit. Which is where he thinks Shakespeare's writing has not aged. He said: "Shakespeare on humanity. He was writing 400 years ago and it hasn't changed that much today. "It is very powerful."
And he said Shakespeare has helped him to be articulate. Paterson said as he was growing up he could be shy and having to think things through really helped him. He first performed Shakespeare in his late teens.
But his first encounter was at an audition for the National Youth Theatre, where he was asked to read part of the Merchant of Venice as Shylock.
He said: "I had never seen Shakespeare. Having read it by myself it made me realise I could understand it. I wasn't afraid of it, because I hadn't come across it in school."
Paterson said if he could have his way pupils wouldn't be taught the work in school, but would see Shakespeare's work at the theatre.
He said: "Shakespeare would not have believed we were studying his words. He wrote to be seen and heard. It would have been a strange concept to him. "I think it frightens a lot of people. If I had studied it I don't think I would have liked Shakespeare.
"We had an informal visit from Princes Charles when we were in Stratford. "He came backstage. He said I studied Julius Caesar at school. "I said I bet you hated it and he said 'Actually yes, I did. I didn't really understand it or get it.' I said it was probably your teacher.
"That is it really for a lot of pupils."
But he said he is not blaming the teachers but believes it should be something which is live.
He added: "It is a bit like in 40 years time people studying London and someone said the perfect thing to do is read a script from Eastenders, you would understand what a lot of them were like in the 80s and 90s. It would be lost.
"But as soon as you see a couple of characters shouting at each other you would understand it a little better."
But the actor is not most recognised for his Shakespearan work but for his role as Alan Johnson in Channel 4's Peep Show with David Mitchell and Simon Webb. And he said when he started: "There was part of me that didn't even understand why it was funny.
"It was the sort of humour I had never come across before really- very dark- and just on the edge of decency and taste. "In fact it goes overboard most of the time. That first episode I did- I didn't know how many people would get it."
Now on its eighth series it is what he is mostly recognised for.
See Paterson Joseph in Julius Caesar at Aylesbury Waterside Theatre from September 19-22 at 7.30pm, with Thursday and Saturday matinees at 2.30pm. Tickets are £10-£26 from 0844 8717607 or go to www.atgtickets.com/aylesbury
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