Julius Caesar

  • Date:
    April 1, 2005
    Review by:
    Polly Wittenberg

    Written by: William Shakespeare
    Directed by: Daniel Sullivan
    Cast: Denzel Washington (Brutus), Colm Feore (Cassius), Jessica Hecht (Portia), William Sadler (Julius Caesar), Tamara Tunie (Calphurnia), Eamonn Walker (Marc Antony) and Jack Willis (Casca)
    Synopsis: The honourable Brutus, Cassius and their fellow senators, assassinate their Emperor Julius Caesar, the most powerful man in the world. In the public square, Mark Antony turns popular opinion against them, and civil war ensures.
     

    In Shakespeare�s Julius Caesar, a play where all the main characters are politicians, there are no heroes�only ambitious men with conflicting claims to power. What makes the play always timely are its acute observations about how these greasy-pole-climbers operate.

    Worried about having a leader who is growing too powerful after a series of victorious battles, Brutus and other ardent supporters of a Roman republic plot to kill Caesar. But Brutus is vain and arrogant and has spectacularly bad judgment about his enemies, especially Mark Antony, Caesar�s right-hand man. Antony is a pragmatist with gobs of charisma.

    Denzel, thy name is charisma. So why, oh why, is the smooth and obviously intelligent Mr. Washington playing Brutus rather than Antony in this elaborate but wrong-headed production?

    This fatal bit of miscasting creates many problems, but the worst is that it puts Washington in many scenes with the only member of this cast who has the training and practice to tackle Shakespeare on a big Broadway stage. Colm Feore, a veteran of the Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Ontario is an excellent Cassius. Nose to nose with Feore, all of Washington�s liabilities as a movie actor with limited stage experience become distressingly obvious.

    First there�s the inability to project, then there�s the lack of breath control and finally there are the odd line readings. This he has in common with most members of the cast, especially another video actor with no conspicuous stage experience, Eamon Walker, whose mumbling manages to make Antony�s funeral oration�an all-time masterpiece of rhetorical manipulation�into one big throwaway. Despite his lack of experience, I think that Washington could have done it much better. I know he would have had the young and enthusiastic audience rooting for him.

    A lot of effort has been put into this production of Julius Caesar, the first on Broadway in 55 years, but it suffers from almost all of the common ills of productions of the Bard originating on this side of the Atlantic. Apart from the lack of preparation of almost all American actors to handle Shakespeare�s blank verse, the deferential reluctance of director Daniel Sullivan and his associates to make appropriate cuts in the text (cutting is a common practice in British productions) sacrifices theatrical impact for completeness. The very long first part of the evening (over 90 minutes) is full of climaxes. The second part is a relatively dull litany of battle scenes and suicides. That�s the order in which the Shakespearean text is printed, but many other directors have pruned and shaped it to better dramatic effect.

    Another unnecessary characteristic of American Shakespeare is the use of complicated sets and costumes. Here designer Ralph Funicello has filled the stage with ruins of indeterminate vintage, including several headless statues, all set under what appears to be the underside of a railroad trestle (perhaps a viaduct?). In the funeral scene, a red velvet curtain descends to cover it all as if this quintessential political gathering were taking place in a theatre instead of the public square or forum where a national leader�s last rites would normally be performed. This misguided notion is reinforced by having the conspirators and rabble react to the funeral speeches from the loge boxes on either side of the Belasco before awkwardly climbing across the statuary and jumping back onstage.

    The costumes, by Jess Goldstein, are a wildly eclectic agglomeration. There are business suits for the conspirators, black leather jackets and racing caps for the plebians, and a towel (he�s getting a massage) for Caesar in the first act. In the second part, Brutus�s armies are in U.S. military camouflage while the forces of Antony and his new patron Octavian are in black. Portia and Calpurnia�the wives of Brutus and Caesar respectively�appear only in nightgowns.

    Gimmicks are a feature of many American productions of Shakespeare (as well as of many British productions). Gimmicks are often cute but almost always pointlessly distracting. This production contains a few clever gimmicks. I got a kick out of having Caesar�s security force wanding Brutus and the other conspirators as they entered the room for their audience with Caesar. Of course, the daggers with which they would shortly commit murder had already been sneaked into the room in a briefcase.

    When Antony calls his now-expired adversary Brutus �the noblest Roman of them all� in the ultimate scene of the play, it�s in the same sense that Democrats lined up last June at the funeral of Ronald Reagan to eulogize him as one of our greatest Presidents. Because of the numerous shortcomings of the cast and the staging, that irony and almost all of Shakespeare�s finely tuned perceptions about the nature of politicians are lost in this production.

     

    What the critics had to say.....

    BEN BRENTLEY of the NEW YORK TIMES says �Mr. Washington's Brutus bites the dust with convincing physical bravado. But it says much about this production that Brutus's final, resonant invocation of the ghost of Caesar ("I killed not thee with half so good a will") is muffled by the noise of his death throes.�
    HOWARD KISSEL of NEW YORK DAILY NEWS says �The production may not convey nobility, the quality the play mentions time and again, but it does have dramatic flair and excitement.�
    CLIVE BARNES of NEW YORK POST says "It is Washington as that "noblest Roman of them all" who has to bear the burden of the production, and though at times, particularly in those doubt-ridden opening scenes, he falters, he never actually falls."
    ELYSA GARDNER of USA TODAY "The leading man himself lends his usual sharp naturalism to Brutus, swallowing the occasional word but generally delivering a vigorous and entirely credible performance."
    LINDA WINER of NEWSDAY says "When we find ourselves wondering about the implication of black-versus-brown shoes, clearly, we have been left with too much psychological space to fill."
    JACQUES LE SOURD of JOURNAL NEWS says "As we watch Washington slog through this part in an unimaginative fashion that needlessly points up all his shortcomings as an actor, we can't help thinking: Why didn't he pick a cool modern play to come back to Broadway with?"
    MICHAEL SOMMERS of STAR-LEDGER says "Compared to a few of the movie/TV star Shakespearean disasters that audiences have suffered over the years -- Kelsey Grammer's "Macbeth," for instance -- this one starring a hardworking Denzel Washington isn't so terrible."
    MICHAEL KUCHWARA of Associated Press says "Washington comes across as subdued. His voice, while strong, lacks variety, producing a monotone at odds with the other, more vocally acrobatic "
    FRANK SCHECK Of the HOLLYWOOD REPORTER says "Washington delivers a performance of searing intensity and physicality as the most tormented of Caesar's betrayers. Speaking the language with naturalistic ease and projecting to the back of the house without apparent effort, he gives a robust performance well tailored to the stage, while at the same time melding seamlessly into the ensemble."

    External links to full reviews from newspapers:
    New York Times
    New York Daily News
    New York Post
    USA Today
    Newsday
    Journal News
    Associated Press
    Hollywood Reporter