nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
April 7, 2005
Scholarly debate has long raged over the identity of the hero of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Is it the title character, the legendary ruler who Shakespeare reveals as full of frailties, physically weak, and tragically susceptible to the flattery that ultimately coaxes him to his death at the beginning of the third act? Or is it Brutus, the noble Roman spoken of by all as a genuinely honorable man, who assassinates his ruler for the good of his country?
The play opens with Caesar’s victorious return to Rome. As he addresses his restive subjects, Brutus is prodded by Cassius to consider whether Caesar is truly fit to rule. This gives voice, it seems, to Brutus’s pre-existing doubts, and he—reluctantly, with much convincing of self and many caveats to the other conspirators—signs on to a plot to assassinate Caesar before he is offered, and accepts, a crown. Despite evil portents all around, Caesar is persuaded to come to the Senate on the Ides of March, where he is stabbed by each of the conspirators in turn.
After Caesar is dead, though, things do not go entirely as planned, which is largely Brutus’s fault. It is Brutus who persuades the other conspirators not to kill Caesar’s chief lieutenant, Mark Antony, along with Caesar, and Brutus who allows Antony to eulogize Caesar, which spurs the populace to outrage. What results is civil war with Brutus and Cassius on one side and Antony, Caesar’s nephew Octavius Caesar, and the somewhat irrelevant Lepidus on the other.
The casting of Oscar-winner Denzel Washington as Brutus seems to put Daniel Sullivan’s lavish Broadway production firmly on the side of Brutus as hero. It’s Washington who gets the above-the-title billing, and the close-up of his face on all the show’s promotional materials. Unfortunately, Washington’s performance doesn’t hold the moral or emotional center of the play—he often seems tentative or shy rather than truly conflicted, and uses broad, sweeping gestures instead of embracing the breadth and sweep in the language itself. Washington is a likable Brutus, but not a noble one.
However, William Sadler’s Julius Caesar also lacks heroic stature, seeming instead petulant, which leaves an odd vacuum at the play’s core. It leaves the audience open to be swayed by whoever’s giving the most convincing performance of the moment—often the very strong Colm Feore as Cassius, sometimes the impassioned (though occasionally hard-to-understand) Eamonn Walker as Antony, and, in her few scenes, Jessica Hecht in the thankless role of Portia, Brutus’s wife.
Now, to a certain extent, the production’s lack of a moral center does put the audience in the position of the play’s Roman mob, whom we watch being easily converted from one cause or allegiance to its complete opposite by the powers of oratory. This is most notable at Caesar’s funeral, which is (coincidentally, or not?) one of the play’s strongest scenes. Played simply in front of a dusty proscenium curtain and addressed directly to the audience (with actors planted in the aisles to cheer at appropriate moments), this scene brings out the best in both Washington and Walker. When their job is to persuade the audience, both unleash effective rhetoric and the force of their personalities. Here, Washington’s quiet gravity works to persuade the mob his cause is just—until Walker’s sarcastic flourishes make a mockery of Brutus’s words.
One could make a case that director Daniel Sullivan has intended exactly such a state of ambivalence, that his interpretation of Julius Caesar is all about mob psychology, the vacuous hole at the heart of politics, and the fickle allegiances of the modern electorate. However, I think it would be somewhat of a stretch, especially for the second half of the play, which comprises a confusing and bloody series of battle scenes. The play as a whole feels more like a set of good intentions that never quite gel.
In the end, the most exciting thing about this Julius Caesar may just be its audience. It was a joy to see a Broadway house packed with excited, ethnically diverse, and relatively young people—which I have to think is due to Washington’s presence onstage. For getting young New Yorkers excited about Shakespeare, he is certainly to be commended.