STRATFORD, Conn.--Bernard Shaw often took a condescending attitude to Shakespeare. But even when taking potshots at Julius Caesar, Shaw conceded that it is "the most splendidly written political melodrama we possess." Since we cannot escape politics, the play is always timely. It is particularly so in a national election year like this one; and again so at the end of a decade of violence wreaked upon major public figures from President Kennedy to Governor Wallace. With Caesar cut down not by a loner but by a handful within his own group, there is a striking recent parallel in the assassination of Malcolm X.
Under Michael Kahn's direction, the American Shakespeare Festival has kicked off its 18th season with a production that is unflaggingly handsome and often forceful. It is a vast improvement over the almost rudderless version that the Festival mounted six summers ago, in which only Douglas Watson's Brutus, among the major roles, achieved stature. On the other hand, it is far from matching the extraordinary 1953 film version directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, which remains a good yardstick for the play. (The work has attracted filmmakers a dozen or so times from 1907 to as recently as two years ago.)
Trimming the play to a running time of two and a quarter hours. Kahn has for the most part adopted a straightforward approach. Although the Renaissance tended to oppose Caesar--as the Middle Ages had sided with him--Shakespeare carefully saw to it that the play as a whole took no stand. The text is ambiguous, the positions balanced; hence a director may easily tilt his production toward one view or the other. Kahn takes here a neutral stand, and leaves it to the audience to weigh the evidence.
Robin Wagner, working for the first time at Stratford, has designed a fine, economical basic set. The main playing area, which can divide at the center, is raked at a daringly steep angle, but the players seem at home on it. This leads up to a massive wall in the rear, which opens to varying widths to allow the entrance of people or light. Place is indicated by a few pieces of furniture or props--notably a huge suspended silver eagle, symbol of Roman military; and a marvelous sculptured group of three draped and faceless figures, which adorns Brutus's garden.
Also making his Festival debut is Marc B. Weiss, who has lit the show with unerring taste and skill. Especially effective is the night lighting. In a departure from custom, Brutus and Antony deliver their eulogies of Caesar in the evening, with flickering light coming from flaming torches held by four of the assembled commoners.
The one really starting novelty that Kahn has introduced is the staging of the actual assassination of Caesar. At this point Casca and the rest of the conspirators execute their dagger thrusts and other bodily movements in ultra slow-motion, turning the scene into a graceful choreographed ritual. The director perhaps got the idea from the slow-motion violence in such recent movies as Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, and Bunch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Murder-as-ritual is a perfectly valid concept for this play, in which several characters specifically speak of "rites" and "ceremonies." In fact, the conspirators seal their resolution with a handshaking ritual, and the text requires them to go through a bloodbath ritual after the murder. Cassius even predicts that this "lofty scene" will be re-enacted countless times by posterity. This killing is viewed as almost a religious act, and Kahn has taken his cue from Brutus's words: "Let's be sacrificers, but not butchers...Let's carve him as a dish fit for the gods. Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds."
THE SLOW-MOTION, as currently played, is not led up to very well, but the idea itself is stunning. This solution has the added virtue of heightening the contrast between the rationalized assassination of Caesar and the ensuing irrational mob-lynching of Cinna the poet for the crime of having the same name as one of the conspirators. The latter--one of stage literature's most horrible acts, from which mankind has yet to learn--is carried out fast and brutally: not only is the innocent Cinna stabbed, but his eyes are also gouged out with sticks, while the stage is flooded with blood-red light. Even those who hold that no killing can ever be justified should admit a distinction between these two murders.
Although entitled Julius Caesar, the play is not about Caesar but about Caesarism. Caesar himself appears in only three of the eighteen scenes (plus a brief apparition as a ghost). Bernard Kates plays him as a forceful man who seems much younger than his 55 years. It is hard to reconcile this Caesar with the one who, Cassius tells us, ran out of steam while swimming in the Tiber. Although Caesar has recently returned from military victories. I prefer a Caesar who is slightly over the hill, who is clearly showing signs of weakness (like the deal left ear he himself mentions).
The major issues of the play are centered in the complex character of Brutus, a man "with himself at war," an idealist who, as it turns out, can no more foretell the dire outcome of his well-meant acts than can Gregers Werle, the great idealist in Ibsen's The Wild Duck. James Ray gives us a Brutus that is reasonably well spoken, and rather restrained as befits an adherent of the Stoic school of philosophy. But he does not reach the deep intellectuality attained by James Mason in the film, and does not sufficiently earn the posthumous tribute paid him by Mark Antony at the end of the play.
Paul Hecht looks right for the ardent, opportunistic Antony. But he does not yet fulfil the requirement that he also be the play's most effective orator. The moment when Antony first confronts Caesar's corpse and soliloquizes while hugging the body in his arms is the most moving in the production. But his handling of the famous funeral oration is disappointing. His timing here, and often elsewhere, is all off. He delivers "Lend me your ears" and "I come to bury Caesar" in a run-on manner that makes no sense whatever. He should study the fresh and definitive Antony of Marlon Brando in the movie. I do, however, like the way Hecht points out the several cuts in Caesar's mantle, which he carries from person to person so that each many touch it as a sort of holy relic--a bit of business that ties in neatly with the ritualistic slow-motion "sacrifice."
JOSEF SOMMER, who has usually specialized in portraying old men (and who played Caesar in the 1966 production), is now a properly lean and cynical Cassius. His wide vocal range and unfailingly intelligent line-readings add up to a first-rate performance. Joseph Maher's Casca will be almost equally good if he learns to say "part" and "market" instead of "paht" and "mahket."
Of the small roles I much admire the cool and calculating young Octavius of Philip Kerr, and the oily Decius of John Tillinger. Some of the rest need work, including Bryan Utman as the boy-servant Lucius (a role that Shakespeare had to invent instead of taking over from Plutarch, and was so beautifully done on this stage six years ago by Alan Howard). Utman is not helped at all by the ugly and fussy song composed for him by John Morris.
On the distaff side, Sharon Laughlin as Brutus's wife Portia is not wholly at case in her lines. Ruby Holbrook, as Caesar's wife Calpurnia, speaks better but hasn't the remotest idea of how to react when her husband decides to go to the Senate after all on the Ides of March.
Jane Greenwood's togas and gowns are fine, though I am less fond of the leather military uniforms and not at all fond of the inverted chamber pots the soldiers wear on their heads. John Morris's incidental music is inferior, and is too often used to underscore speech that would better have our undivided attention. Still, Kahn is offering a production that is certainly worth a visit unless the 1953 film happens to be playing nearby.
(Ed Note--The drive to the picturesque Festival grounds on the Housatonic River takes about two and a hall hours via the Massachusetts Turnpike. Interstate of and the Connecticut Turnpike to Exit 32 or 31. Performances in the air-conditioned Festival Theatre traditionally tend to begin promptly at their designated hour. There are free facilities for picnickers on the premises.)