At the university, Polonius boasts in Hamlet, he once was accounted a good actor. Hamlet cannot resist asking: "What did you enact?" Polonius brags: "I did enact Julius Caesar. I was killed in the Capitol; Brutus killed me." Hamlet teases him: "It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf there."
With this blatant bit of self-promotion, Shakespeare reminds his audience of his previous year's hit, undoubtedly still in repertory. All that's missing is the subscription pitch.
Gaius Julius Caesar was born in 100 B.C. and was assassinated on March 15, 44 B.C. A military hero of the Roman Republic before he was 40, Caesar was a victorious general in Spain. Back from the wars, he was elected consul and formed the first triumvirate with Pompey and Crassus. He returned to Gaul, saw it and conquered it, and subjugated Britain while he was at it. Upon coming home, he crossed the Rubicon and thus began a civil war against his old friend Pompey, who fled to Egypt. There, a young queen named Cleopatra had him murdered, saving Caesar the trouble and ingratiating herself to the coming victor.
Caesar's return to Rome brought him huge honors: He was made speaker of the house and president combined. He procured a lucrative publishing deal, recounting his feats in words every schoolboy knows: "Omnis Gallia est divisa in tres partes." He was set for life. But not everybody appreciated his Contract With Roma; some feared his ambition was to downsize the government to one. The Tragedy of Julius Caesar dramatizes his murder by his closest associates and the two years that follow, until the suicides of conspirators Brutus and Cassius. Shakespeare's rendition of these historical events was first performed in 1599 at the Globe Theater (in the same season as Twelfth Night and As You Like It, and one year before Hamlet).
Perhaps the most famous production of the play in our century was the modern-dress staging by Orson Welles at the Mercury Theater in 1937. The 1953 Joseph L. Mankiewicz film is a classic, starring Marlon Brando as Marc Antony, James Mason as Brutus, John Gielgud as Cassius and Louis Calhern as Caesar, with Greer Garson, Deborah Kerr and Edmond O'Brien rounding out the cast. Unlike productions that tend to upstage Shakespeare with interpretation, Southwest Shakespeare Company's is a straightforward rendition at the comfortable Mountain View High School in Mesa. Although constructed of solidly wooden dramaturgy, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is mostly memorable for Shakespeare's famous speeches. Many of his most familiar lines can be found in the play, and the SSC actors launch into them with a forthright delivery that allows the recognizable phrases to ring with authority, if not authenticity.
The Southwest Shakespeare Company production by director Tracy Dressler is actually more of a historical pageant than a believable drama, but it is an approach that serves the needs of this particular play.
To be sure, Dressler demonstrates little gift for physical movement. The actors tend to be staged parallel to the footlights, turning only their heads to the side to address their scene partners. This has the effect of watching Cassius and Brutus engaged in conspiratorial conversation while driving on a cross-country trip. Of course, it also, however unsubtly, allows the actors to project the text out to the audience with great clarity. Once we suspend our disbelief that people talking to each other would stand side by side to do so, the action of the play becomes vividly created in the thundering language and the eloquent poetry.
A chief asset to the production is Darrell Copp in the pivotal part of Brutus. This "noblest Roman of them all" can be a bit of a bore if played too loftily. Fortunately, Copp grounds him in a convincing patriotism that helps us to understand that we are seeing an honorable man undone by the tide of the times.
Late in the play, Shakespeare has crafted an exquisite moment of humanity that gives Brutus depth and sympathy. Brutus is alone in his tent with his servant boy when this intimate conversation ensues: "Look, Lucius, here's the book I sought for so; I put it in the pocket of my gown." Relieved, the boy replies: "I was sure your lordship did not give it me." And Brutus gently acknowledges the needed loyalty: "Bear with me, good boy, I am much forgetful."
This simple scene, so telling of this tender relationship, is played with a force of such unaffected belief and intimacy by Copp and Christopher M. Williams that one is touched. Beneath all the pompous righteousness of Brutus, there is a quiet, patrician dignity more genuine than all his self-aggrandizing protestations about his pristine nobility.
John King has given us a Cassius who is part senator and part quarterback. His no-nonsense opinions of the dangers to the state seem the product of actual conviction, rather than Machiavellian maneuvering. King's blunt account endows Cassius with a welcome and unusually virile constitution that raises his merit above the waspish villain sometimes depicted. It is hard to make us feel much at Cassius' death, but King has played him with such fascinating complexity that we are sorry, if not sad, to see him go. James Ward is a bit too voluptuous as the hedonistic Marc Antony, falling short of the passionate depth his speeches suggest. He is more comfortable with the sly manipulator he becomes as he lets "slip the dogs of war." Still, Ward makes Antony's oratory ring with purpose, and the words of these great speeches thrill with their resonance.
Tim Reader gives the title role a populist kind of accessibility that softens Caesar's pomposity. We don't exactly warm to this man, but it is hard to care much about one so self-deluded. Reader's Caesar nevertheless has a dignity that serves the plot, and he is most chillingly effective as a mutilated corpse, walking the ramparts above, warning Brutus in the flickering candlelight that they will meet at Philippi.
Natalie Hansen and Shannon Kelly do what they can with the secondary roles of Portia and Calpurnia, but Suzy Newman makes the most of the Soothsayer's foreboding. "The Ides of March are come," brags Caesar when he sees her. Newman fixes him with her eye and drones with ominous caution: "Aye, Caesar, but not gone."
All the actors struggle manfully to deal with the unflattering hemlines of their tunics, and the sea of knobby knees takes some getting used to. But aided by brilliant colors that enrich the cyclorama, and stirred by a rousing musical score, the play gives the audience a chance to hear Shakespeare deliver his epic unencumbered by the egos of the performers. Leaving it to the author to carry the evening is a wise decision, when, as Cassius prophesies: "How many ages hence/Shall this our lofty scene be acted over/In states unborn and accents yet unknown!"
In the past three months, I have seen The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, Titus Andronicus, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hamlet and now Julius Caesar. It's been one of the surprises of moving to this Valley-on-Avon. At least this time, in this state unborn, the accents are true to the text.
Finally, next week: new plays!
Marshall W. Mason has won six Obie Awards for directing work by playwrights Lanford Wilson, Tennessee Williams and Jules Feiffer. Mason is now associate professor of theatre at Arizona State University.
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the Phoenix art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.