For centuries actors proved their mettle by playing Shakespeare. The success they achieved in tackling the great roles defined their stardom.
Nowadays we have Celebrity Shakespeare, where an actor, generally from film or TV, bestows his fame and box office appeal on the Bard.
Obviously the old standards of judging Shakespeare have to be modified to deal with this new phenomenon.
In the old days we might have fussed over how Academy Award winner Denzel Washington lived up to the demands of Brutus.
Now it makes more sense to determine how the character of Brutus fits the qualities Washington brings to him.
In his famous speech at the end of the play, Mark Antony describes Brutus as "gentle." This element Washington conveys beautifully, suggesting a special gentleness that derives from great strength.
But Antony also describes him as "the noblest Roman of them all." Unlike the other conspirators, he says, Brutus had more concern for the common good than any personal enmity in murdering Caesar.
This larger quality Washington does not project. His Brutus is a decent, well-meaning man, but we do not sense someone preoccupied with philosophical issues.
Nor does he suggest the inner turmoil Brutus goes through before joining the other conspirators in the act that ultimately will lead to his own downfall.
That turmoil comes through only in the strong work of Eamonn Walker, the production's Antony.
Even his great funeral oration does not seem the usual feat of calculated rhetoric. It reflects Antony's anguish and anger, not just his skill at swaying a fickle mob.
"Julius Caesar" is a play about the consequences, both political and personal, of an assassination.
As is invariably the case in Shakespeare, blood, however noble anyone's motives for shedding it, only leads to more blood.
Daniel Sullivan's production does little to clarify the play's concerns.
There are strong pieces of staging, like the moment when Caesar, admirably played by William Sadler, is horrified to see Brutus among the group that is about to stab him.
But other elements of the modern-dress production seem gimmicky. The set, for example, by Ralph Funicello, suggests a Rome already ravaged by civil war rather than in the primal strength of its simple republican years.
There are also lots of topical references. At one point senators undergo the kind of security checks one might encounter at a modern-day metropolitan airport.
This is cute, but it undermines the scene that follows: The horror of Caesar's assassination is that it takes place in an atmosphere of trust.
At one point we see a flag with the eagle of the Romanovs. At another we see the black-hooded insurgents of contemporary Iraq.
All these allusions do not necessarily clarify the play.
Nor does it make sense for some soldiers with swords (which the text demands) to face others with rifles.
Some of the performances are strong: Jack Willis is a wonderfully wily Casca, Kelly AuCoin an exuberant Octavius Caesar and Colm Feore a solid Cassius, he of the lean and hungry look.
Jessica Hecht, on the other hand, makes Brutus's wife shrewish. Nor does Tamara Tunie make a very sympathetic Calpurnia.
Still, there is competence in the delivery of the verse, which one cannot always take for granted.
The production may not convey nobility, the quality the play mentions time and again, but it does have dramatic flair and excitement.
Washington has plenty of stage chops. Maybe in the course of the run he will find more ways to use them.
Brutus, as Mark Antony almost endlessly assures us, is "an honorable man," and Denzel Washington plays him as a man of conflicted honor and slow-smoldering moral purpose.
Washington plays him and wins in this production at the Belasco Theater - but rather narrowly.
Daniel Sullivan's confident staging of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," which virtually enshrines this deliberately bashful star performance, is in modern dress.
No surprise here, because most productions worldwide, taking the hint from Orson Welles' famed staging for his Mercury Theater back in 1937, exchange the toga party that once characterized the play for contemporary dress.
What is new is that while Welles and his followers modeled Caesar on a Mussolini-like Fascist dictator, Sullivan sees him more as an intensely ambitious bureaucrat.
The men surrounding him and the conspirators led by Brutus and Cassius all wear classy Italian lounge suits and look like Mafioso, and Caesar is not murdered on the Capitol steps but in a conference room, with daggers very neatly smuggled in – through the metal detectors.
"Julius Caesar" seems to have a certain resonance with Hollywood royalty. Marlon Brando, as a wrongfully much-maligned Mark Antony, joined James Mason and John Gielgud in the famous 1953 movie, and now the drama has tempted Washington back to Broadway.
This is not the first time Washington has tried Shakespeare on for size. In 1990, he was Richard III in Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival, a brilliantly calculated study in mocking evil.
Here, with one diamond earring glittering, as if to distinguish him from the common rabble of conspiring politicos, Washington seeks, usually successfully, to find the thoughtful, conversational poetry in Shakespeare.
A big man, often blundering and confused (there's a great Othello here waiting to emerge), Washington's Brutus concentrates on the ironic flip side of tragedy.
There are some beautifully calculated small images, such as the gentle way he fondles his wedding ring after hearing of the death of his wife, Portia.
Unfortunately, most of the time he blends too much into the play's tapestry - modesty taken a bit too far. But when his big chance for rhetorical eloquence arrives, in introducing Caesar's corpse to the Roman mob, he seizes it magnificently.
He so out-acts Mark Antony that you wonder why that fickle Roman populace turned against him
And this points up the production's major flaw: The general level of performance is simply not up to the play or, for that matter, to Sullivan's concept of it.
William Sadler makes an meager, unprepossessing Caesar, more petulant than imperial; Eamonn Walker offers a strident but ineffectual Mark Antony; and most of the assorted conspirators, womenfolk and soldiery provide little more than a general blur of Shakespearean bustle.
Exceptions are a nicely nasty Octavius Caesar from Kelly AuCoin, a plumply sinister Casca from Jack Willis (who so strongly suggests Sydney Greenstreet that you glance around for Peter Lorre) and, best of all, Colm Feore's neatly ambiguous Cassius, conniving, wheedling and hot-tempered.
But, in the end, it is Washington as that "noblest Roman of them all" who has to bear the burden of the production, and though at times, particularly in those doubt-ridden opening scenes, he falters, he never actually falls.
Those cruel forces of history known as the dogs of war are on a rampage at the Belasco Theater, where a carnage-happy new production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" opened last night. Dripping blood and breathing smoke, these specters of martial havoc are chewing up and spitting out everything in their path: friends, Romans, countrymen, blank verse, emotional credibility, a man who would be king and even the noblest movie star of them all, he whom the masses call Denzel.
That's Denzel Washington, the two-time Academy Award winner and the reason that theatergoers are now lining up for a play that hasn't drawn such crowds in New York since Al Pacino gnawed his way through Mark Antony's funeral oration at the Public Theater 17 years ago. Mr. Washington has taken on the quieter but meatier role of Brutus.
As the most important passenger on Daniel Sullivan's fast, bumpy ride of a production, Mr. Washington does not embarrass himself, as leading citizens of Hollywood have been known to do on Broadway. But even brilliantined in the glow of his inescapable fame, he can't help getting lost amid the wandering, mismatched crowd and the heavy topical artillery that have been assembled here.
This is regrettable, since Mr. Washington would appear in many ways an inspired choice for Brutus. Among leading American film actors, he has all but cornered the market on advanced ambivalence. Whether playing unctuously evil ("Training Day") or raggedly heroic ("The Manchurian Candidate"), Mr. Washington exudes the grave, unsettled air of someone who hears the world as a symphony of mixed signals. Casting him as "poor Brutus, with himself at war," a character who anticipates Hamlet in divided feelings about bloody deeds, must have seemed like a no-brainer.
In several shining sequences, Mr. Washington more than justifies his presence in this production, although it's telling that such moments usually occur during monologues, which require little or no interaction with others. In the second-act soliloquy in which Brutus considers the planned assassination of the tyrant Caesar (William Sadler), Mr. Washington is suffused with the uneasiness of a good man struggling against instinct.
He has the self-questioning timber and tired, open face of someone long battered by doubt. The same quality is surprisingly and affectingly carried over into the speech Brutus makes to the frightened mob after Caesar has been slain. You can sense both why the people like Brutus and why they'll soon be putty in the hands of that more flamboyant and assured speechifier Mark Antony (Eamonn Walker).
But in the moment-to-moment dialogue and action that are the bulk of the play, this Brutus seems plagued less by moral and philosophical uncertainty than by actorly insecurity. Mr. Washington's voice becomes rushed and soft, sometimes to the point of inaudibility. And even when other characters are looking to the mighty Brutus for guidance amid chaos, Mr. Washington looks more apologetic than anything else.
Under the circumstances, it's hard to blame him. Mr. Sullivan, an agile director whose recent credits include "Proof" and "A Moon for the Misbegotten," has populated his "Julius Caesar" with performers who seem to have arrived from different planets in the great galaxy of show business. On the one hand, you have the naturalistic actors like Mr. Washington, who speak Shakespearean speech with the equivalent of an easygoing shrug. On the other hand, you have fiercely classical interpreters who are going for Tragedy with a capital T, like the excellent Colm Feore (as Cassius) and Jessica Hecht (as Portia, Brutus's wife).
Then there are Mr. Walker, whose Mark Antony combines classical fierceness with naturalistic incomprehensibility, and Jack Willis, who plays Casca as a jaunty backroom gossip. Mr. Sadler, a scrappy man with a gangsterish air, portrays the title character as if the play were titled "Little Caesar," while Kelly AuCoin embodies young Octavius Caesar (Julius's great nephew) with the blithe cockiness of the lead singer in a boy band.
The overall effect is bewildering in the style of a free-for-all concert in which opera, jazz, light rock and musical comedy are performed simultaneously. This means that the points of connection among the characters, essential to creating an emotionally stirring "Julius Caesar," are mostly nonexistent.
There is little sense of the crucial, shifting relationships among the patrician conspirators. When Mr. Feore's Cassius and Mr. Washington's Brutus fight and make up on the fields of battle, the impression is of scenes from two different films spliced together to create the illusion of a dialogue. Everyone manages to convey intensity, but rarely with any specificity of character.
Mr. Sullivan has, perhaps of necessity, shifted the burden of interpretation to the mise-en-scène. Designed by Ralph Funicello (sets), Jess Goldstein (costumes) and Mimi Jordan Sherin (lighting), the show's war-is-still-hell look will be familiar to anyone who has spent time at bastions of up-to-date Shakespeare like the National Theater in London or the New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park.
The setting is a ravaged, vaguely Balkan-looking ancient city where armed thugs lurk in shadows, soldiers sport berets and guerrilla fatigues and plaster falls to the sound of exploding bombs. There is an unnecessary flash of nudity where Caesar bares his buttocks in rising from a massage table. Contemporary accessories include photo I.D. tags and metal detectors. How the conspirators manage to bypass the latter in smuggling daggers becomes a matter of elaborate and distracting stage business involving a battered briefcase.
Mr. Sullivan keeps things moving apace, though the general impression is rather blurry, like a landscape seen through the window of a speeding train. In the show's second half, the blood spurts in geysers. There is one especially grisly decapitation. And the suicides of Brutus and Cassius are rendered in gut-churning detail. But without having come to know these tragic losers, you may find it hard to work up much sentiment about their demises, however grisly.
Mr. Washington's Brutus bites the dust with convincing physical bravado. But it says much about this production that Brutus's final, resonant invocation of the ghost of Caesar ("I killed not thee with half so good a will") is muffled by the noise of his death throes.
Audiences have grown accustomed to watching screen actors try to flex their creative muscles and buff up their credibility on Broadway stages. Still, it's not every day that an A-list movie star brings Shakespeare to the boards.
The whoops and shrieks that greeted Denzel Washington's entrance at a recent preview of the new production of Julius Caesar (* * ½ out of four) actually would not have been out of place at a film opening, or a rock concert.
And why not? I doubt that Brutus, the tragic hero that Washington plays, has looked better or exuded more physical charisma than he does here.
Of course. Washington brings more than sex appeal to the role of Caesar's tormented betrayer. It's impossible, even in 2005, to watch an African-American man who has just stabbed a white ruler raise his arms in the air and shout “Freedom!" and not consider certain implications, however socially favored the character's position. Black actors are cast in other principal roles, most notably that of Brutus' nemesis, Mark Antony.
Race is not the defining factor, however, in director Daniel Sullivan's muscular but flawed interpretation, which opened Sunday at the Belasco Theatre. True, non-traditional casting in New York hasn't progressed as swimmingly as many had predicted or hoped it would by now. But seeing Washington paired with white actress Jessica Hecht, in the part of Brutus' wife, shouldn't surprise avid theatergoers - or anyone who saw the Disney musical Aida, for that matter.
Sullivan instead emphasizes the kind of general political and military intrigue that has come to complicate, and often eclipse, concerns over civil rights. When conspirators enter a conference room for Caesar's final, fatal meeting, they are greeted by a metal detector (one that doesn't work too well, apparently). Battle scenes that follow, with their blinding explosions and rapid bursts of gunfire, evoke some of Washington's action-oriented movies more than your standard Elizabethan showdown.
The leading man himself lends his usual sharp naturalism to Brutus, swallowing the occasional word but generally delivering a vigorous and entirely credible performance. Hecht's distraught Portia also is compelling, as are William Sadler's robust Caesar and Jack Willis' droll Casca.
Unfortunately, two key cast members don't fare as well. As Cassius, Colm Feore is suitably cunning but too florid to establish a convincing rapport with Washington's earthy nobleman.
Eamonn Walker's Antony poses an even bigger problem. Saddled with a voice so hoarse and strained that I thought at first he was suffering from laryngitis, he is by turns histrionic and indecipherable - histrionic when he's screaming, indecipherable when he's not.
Walker shouldn't bother wasting his energy. Antony may have better luck with public speaking in the script, but when it comes to drawing crowds, I suspect this Brutus will prove a force to be reckoned with.