STRATFORD SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL: III
Brutus Is the Sole Standout in Show
STRATFORD, Conn.--I suppose almost everyone has been put through Julius Caesar as a high-school sophomore and been forced to commit some of its speeches to memory. For all its familiarity the play remains, like Beethoven's Fifth, a rattling good work; and no one should shrink from mounting it on that account.
Julius Caesar was, in fact, the very first play to be offered when the American Shakespeare Festival began its operations eleven summers age. And it has not been restaged there until now.
Dealing as it does with power and conscience, and with the justifiability and efficacy of violence, the play is naturally always timely. The current production is not being staged as an intentional comment on the civil rights movement, on Vietnam, or on any other pressing social or political problem; but the relevance of the play to the United States of 1966 seems wholly inescapable.
As a mater of fact, the Stratford program does not even list a director. It turns out that Allen Fletcher left before the job was done and Margaret Webster was called in to take up the reins. This is not the first time that such unprofessional conduct has been in evidence at the Festival, and I wish it would be the last.
Julius Caesar is a no-nonsense play. It gets right down to business and sticks to business. There is no sub-plot, no comic relief, not even any mildly humorous lines except for a handful of Casca's; and the play is freer of bawdry than any other save Richard II. Aside from a little compression of chronology, Shakespeare followed closely his three source biographies in Plutarch's Lives, often just turning its line of prose into verse.
He restricted himself to a narrower vocabulary than in any other play except The Comedy of Errors. Everything is taut, economical, classical. Although the characters have their own individualities, they appear here in their public personae, and all adopt a nearly uniform neutral kind of classical forensic diction. Cicero himself has only a few words in the play, but his orations, with all their rhetorical questions, seem to have hovered over the writing of the entire drama.
Too Much Noise
This being so, one of the tasks facing a director is to see that the legitimately rhetorical is not allowed to burgeon (or "escalate," to use up-to-date terminology) into the bombastic. It is all too easy for Julius Caesar, in performance, to turn into one long shouting match. The present production is not sufficiently free of this tendency. Fortissimo speech is not this troupe's strongpoint; and some of its playing goes so far out of control as to be totally unintelligible. Its actors need to learn that forcefulness is not necessarily directly proportional to loudness.
The most nearly satisfactory portrayal is Douglas Watson's Brutus, the central and most complex character in the play. Watson's speech is for the most part clear, clean, clipped and, when appropriate, clarion. He makes it evident that Brutus is pulled in more than one direction; the other characters have singleness of vision and purpose and see things in black-and-white, but the noble Brutus is cursed with the gravity of grappling with grays.
Watson's weakest moment is unfortunately his most famous one, when he addresses the Roman plebs at Caesar's funeral in the Forum. Here he lacks sincerity and sonority. The crowd, however, handles itself rather effectively in this scene, emitting a susurrus of suspense before Brutus' harangue, and erupting into noisy iterations of a metrically unison spondee-anapest pattern before Mark Antony's.
This scene is regrettably marred beyond redemption by Stephen Joyce, who is woefully miscast and misdirected as Antony. He has intensity, but of an adolescent sort. Supposedly the best orator in a play full of good orators, this Antony afflicts us with an ugly voice and a diction rife with malformed vowels. And when, during a pause, a citizen says, "Now mark him, he begins again to speak," Joyce has not given the slightest hint of intending to resume. This speech--one of the most famous in all literature--is simply a disaster. When it was concluded at the opening performance, one outraged man in the audience let out with a resounding boo; and only critical decorum prevented its being joined by at least one more. Joyce--and anyone else essaying the role--should study and restudy Marlon Brando's glorious Antony in the 1953 movie version.
Paul Sparer's blunt and pragmatic Cassius is fine in the first half of the play, but degenerates into overwrought fustian towards the end. In his quarrel with Brutus before Philippi, his low delivery of "Brutus, bait not not me," with shaking knee, is ten times more powerful than all the torrent of screaming and bellowing he soon gives vent to.
In the title role--where Shakespeare was not playing quite fair--Josef Sommer is too hollow and guttural; and he refers to Metellus Cimber as "Cimba" and turns "star" into "stah." Patrick Hines is a slimy Casca, who, when Antony comes to shake hands with the conspirators after the assassination, is still wary enough to extend his left hand and keep his dagger gripped in his right.
Brutus' young page Lucius is the only character Shakespeare did not find in Plutarch, and he was invented chiefly to illustrate Brutus' considerateness of others. Fifteen-year-old Alan Howard plays him ardently and appealingly. When he falls asleep in the midst of singing and plucking his harp, Brutus affectionately covers him with a gown. When, after the battle at Philippi, Lucius is carried in, lain on the ground and tenderly shrouded in a blanket, one is more moved than by the death of any of the play's principals.
The rest of the male performances range from mediocrity down to Michael Stein's abysmal Titinius. There are only two small women's roles mid all the masculinity. Elizabeth Parrish's red-headed Calpurnia is acceptable, but Barbara Colby's Portia is monotonously and unmusically spoken.
Will Steven Armstrong's basic set has a backdrop with Roman porticos painted on it, in front of which two monumental staircases slant in from the upstage corners. At the start there are two tall tapering silver fleches topped with Corinthian capitals, and a row of silver rods hanging behind. Other irregular rafts of widely spaced rods go up and down here and there during the play. There is nothing wrong with stylized settings, but to have players point to these batches of vertical rods and call them a "tent" is carrying license too far. Armstrong has clothed the cast in the standard togas, loincloths, and military tunics. Since Brutus and Cassius are not only brothers-in-law but also foils to each other, Armstrong has taken care always to garb them similarly but in different colors.
Conrad Susa's incidental music is mostly just a series of sound effects. When Caesar's ghost appears to Brutus, Tharon Musser's eerie lighting makes it quite unnecessary to add the off-stage roll on the cymbal. And must we have another crude cymbal roll when Brutus runs on his sword? As a background to the aura of death at Philippi, Susa has also introduced on the harp an ostinato pattern from the Dies irae plainchant, which recalls the identical ostinato near the end of Rachmaninoff's tone-poem Isle of the Dead. At any rate, I suspect that even Sousa would have done better than Susa