Most of Shakespeare’s plays require an audience to make one time-jump, back to the era of his language and his social conventions. His plays set in ancient Rome, like Julius Caesar, are trickier to stage because they require two such jumps: first to Shakespeare’s England, then to that England’s conception of the classical past. Julius Caesar is full of lines about what it is to be a Roman, and situations set up to display the Elizabethan idea of Roman standards of conduct. At the same time, its action and details are filled with Elizabethan daily life, coupled with Shakespeare’s shrewd sense of what drives people to extreme political actions, and what tactics they choose to defend themselves when the actions veer off course.
Daniel Sullivan’s production adds another layer by making Rome a timeless mix of past and present, set in a jumble of ancient walls and modern girders. The senators wear suits, the plebeians wear shapeless green uniforms, and gruff, feisty Caesar (William Sadler) sports a guerrillero‘s red beret. Swords and daggers still do most of the killing, but the knives that stab Caesar are smuggled into the Forum in an attaché case, while helicopters whir and mortar barrages explode over the plains of Philippi. This wouldn’t be bad if it heightened the play’s immediacy. For despite its stirring high-tension confrontation scenes and the string of familiar passages that have made it one of Shakespeare’s most quoted plays, Julius Caesar is actually a very hard play to bring off. Somber, austere, and almost clinical in its emotional distance, it features a hero (Brutus) whose goodness is marred by a violent act for which we only get cursory, incomplete justifications, matched with an antagonist (Marc Antony) who seems most often to be a viciously calculating manipulator.
None of this gets clearly sorted out in Sullivan’s production, which seems to have no clear idea of the play animating it. The overall effect is patchy, and the veering from modern to archaic to futuristic suggests that the patchiness comes from settling for what works in a given scene rather than shaping it toward an overall picture. Some of the acting is very good, but even in intimate scenes the actors often seem to be playing in mismatched styles or pursuing disparate goals. Sullivan seems at a loss with the plebeians, whose scenes are lackadaisically staged, and with the play’s women: Both Portia (Jessica Hecht) and Calpurnia (Tamara Tunie) convey generalized hysteria. Shakespeare’s Caesar may be a despot but he is often a gracious and a philosophically reflective one; both qualities sit oddly on Sadler’s drill sergeant of a ruler. Shakespeare’s Antony is a crafty politician whose grief, whether real or feigned, is channeled into his quest for power; Eamonn Walker’s Antony, sometimes touching but more often unintelligible, is all tears and petulance, the most unpolitical fellow going.
Sullivan does better with the conspirators, putting nice moments of fear and hesitation in both their plotting and the assassination scenes. Two of these small portraits, Jack Willis’s blunt clod of a Casca and Patrick Page’s slickly bland Decius Brutus, are among the best things in the show. (Page does well again in the second half as Brutus’s envoy, Messala.) But the play’s main conflict is centered on Brutus and Cassius, sworn friends and co-conspirators who are both deeply divided souls. Cassius, a man of principle whose enmity to Caesar’s power stems first from a faith in the idea of a republic, is also a tremulous and neurasthenic man, barely aware of the personal resentment and greed that fuel principled declarations. The deeper Brutus is unfrightened and without personal motives; his torments are ethical. Even in an act of political violence, he wants to do the right thing—a desire by which he destroys everything Caesar’s assassination was intended to achieve. In letting Antony speak, he unwittingly puts the mob in the hands of his worst enemy, assuming naively that everyone else can come up to his standard of behavior. (Today’s Democratic Party has a lot in common with Brutus.)
Denzel Washington’s Brutus, meant to be the center of this production, has many good aspects. Washington has a commanding presence, clear diction, and an appealing voice, high and light. But he’s clearly happier in action than in reflection, a Thane of Cawdor rather than a Prince of Denmark. He’s much better in the play’s second half, where Brutus must act decisively, than in the moral weighing process of the first, where he seems only a perplexed nice guy. In the tent scene with Cassius, in contrast, or at his death, Washington’s genuinely moving; you get the nobility and intelligence that justify Brutus’s place in the play. One difficulty is that he lacks a suitable Cassius: Colm Feore is an accomplished actor in a different mode, all vocal technique and no vulnerability; next to Washington, he seems hollow.
If all this seems faint praise at best, there ought to be some louder praise for Washington and his producers: Putting Shakespeare on Broadway, where serious plays have become an endangered species, was a bold risk; and even partial success with it is worth more, morally speaking, than a thousand recycled pop-catalog musicals. Its very existence puts Broadway’s money-grubbers to shame.