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Review: Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ at the Folger Theatre

On stage in Washington through December 7th

Julius Caesar / Folger Theatre, Facebook
• November 30, 2014 5:00 am

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A republic without citizens is a grim place indeed, as the Folger Theatre shows in its production of Julius Caesar, which cuts out nearly all the crowd scenes.

Director Robert Richmond replaces the Roman mob with a cadre of ghostly hooded figures (the soothsayers) who lurk onstage at all times. This is Richmond’s most telling directorial decision, because it makes it seem as if the action of Julius Caesar is driven by evil spirits rather than by the fickle, frenzied passions of the people. Cutting the crowd obscures what is most important in this play: That it is about the end of a republic.

In Caesar, two Roman patricians, Brutus and Cassius, believe that the Roman people mean to make Julius Caesar their king. They stab Caesar in the Senate house and then convince the people that the killing was necessary. But Caesar’s allies, led by Mark Antony, convince the people that Caesar was their benefactor and the people turn on the conspirators. A civil war breaks out. Brutus and Cassius lose, and kill themselves. The Romans soon make Caesar’s adopted son, Octavius, their emperor.  Rome becomes an empire.

In an odd bit of casting, this Caesar (Michael Sharon) looks much younger than both Brutus (Anthony Cochrane) and Cassius (Louis Butelli). Even with gray hair makeup, Sharon’s Caesar is as youthful and energetic as he is unlikeable.

But because he looks so young—unlike the aging, hard-of-hearing, infertile Caesar in the text—you take him less seriously.  Caesar’s outbursts come off as the bratty demands of a spoiled prince. It makes his friendship with an otherwise forgettable Mark Antony (played limply by Maurice Jones) more understandable: they’re the same age. They can be drinking buddies.

Caesar is vain and dangerous: But he is not simply base. The people love him, but wise and noble men like Brutus love him too.  In fact, Caesar and Brutus have a near father-son bond which complicates Brutus’s decision to kill him. By casting them as peers, this is lost.

While Caesar and Brutus’s relationship is diminished, the most interesting aspect of this production is the generous and uncynical way it portrays the friendship between Brutus and Cassius.

Cassius is often presented as a sneak who, for his own selfish reasons, tricks Brutus, who is too noble for his own good, into killing Caesar. But while Butelli’s Cassius is still cagey, ruthless, and difficult,  he is also spirited and charming. He seems to genuinely believe in the same causes as Brutus, and admires him for his nobility.

When Caesar dies, Cassius and Brutus instruct the other conspirators to kneel and bathe their hands in Caesar’s blood. In this production, when this happens, time slows down and the stage goes dark. The conspirators face front and hold up their bloody hands to the audience.   In this dreamlike state, Cassius reassures Brutus that they will be remembered "in states unborn and accents yet unknown" as "the men that gave their country liberty." Butelli delivers this line with an earnestness not usually seen in Cassius. He hasn’t tricked Brutus at all.  He believes in this.

Meanwhile, Cochrane’s dark and moody Brutus is not perfectly pristine in his morals (as Brutus is sometimes played).   Here, Brutus isn’t repulsed by Cassius’s more bloody-minded suggestions, even when he disagrees with them. Cochrane’s flashes of pathos show the audience that Brutus’s stoic façade takes work to maintain. His morality isn’t effortless, which makes it more impressive.

These added dimensions allow the two to meet, not as manipulator and manipulated, but as friends. Their friendship is the solid and compelling part of what is otherwise a confused and crowded production.

This Caesar is set in an indecipherable jumble of times and places: the set is Roman, but also meant to look like the National Mall, or even (per the director’s note in the program) Arlington National Cemetery. Dry ice and fog abound.  The actors wear Elizabethan garb, the actresses wear toga-like dresses, and in the second half of the play, everyone comes in wearing WWI military uniforms and gas masks.

The most disappointing aspect of the production is still the missed opportunity of its interpretation of Shakespeare’s text. Julius Caesar is a nightmare about the fragile nature of self-governance. Without the people, Julius Caesar isn’t really about a republic, it is simply a cold tale of court intrigue: the question becomes, "Who will be king?" rather than, "Will we have a king?

The characters still talk about what "the rabblement" want, but we no longer see said rabblement—only the weird ghosts that Richmond has invented for us. The threat the people pose is theoretical, not visceral.

Shakespeare’s Caesar starts with a scene where a gaggle of Roman tradesmen are scolded by two old Romans for decking out holy statues with images of Caesar. The people are starting to treat the famous general like a god. This scene is cut completely. At the Folger, we begin with Caesar receiving the prophecy that he should "beware the ides of March."

In the next scene, Brutus and Cassius listen to a rally for Caesar offstage. But here, cheers of the people are replaced by the ghostly soothsayers’ hissing, "Caesar…" In this production, Caesar’s rise and fall is attributed not to his popularity but to the will of fate.

Richmond does give us a crowd scene eventually, but only after the death of Caesar. These scenes are well done: the mob moves as one entity, some sort of horrible, hungry organism. Yet by introducing them late, Richmond makes it seem as if they are a part of the chaos that comes when Caesar is killed, not the unstoppable force that elevates Caesar until he has to be killed.

When you remove the heart of the play—the death throes of a republic—the whole production necessarily becomes confused.

At the end of the play, when Antony and Octavius have defeated Cassius and Brutus, they repeat the ritual of the conspirators.  They face front, and they address the final lines of the play to the audience directly, their hands covered in blood.

By making them the same as Brutus and Cassius, Richmond’s message is clear: War is endless, war is futile, all wars are alike.

The soothsayers begin the play carrying red flowers. Once the WWI costumes appear, you realize that the flowers are poppies—red Remembrance Day flowers, meant to symbolize the fallen in war. But because this production overlooks the causes for which men fight and die, it dishonors the fallen. It’s just posturing.

What the original text emphasizes, but this production cuts out, is that the civic health of the Roman republic rests in the people, and the uneasy but critical relationship between them and men like Brutus. Without the people, the director must add in a bunch of superfluous, shallow symbolism to make the play seem exciting and relevant. But the play could resonate on its own, especially when it is performed in Washington DC.

Watching Julius Caesar just steps from the U.S. Capitol pushes one to remember, as John Adams wrote, that "Virtue is the only foundation for Republics." Killing Caesar is easy enough, but it doesn’t address the actual problem. That the people have lost their taste for liberty—that is the true danger.