by Margaret Croyden


Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

Julius Caesar - What Price Stars
starring Denzel Washington
The Belasco Theater 111 West 44 Street
Reviewed April 10,2005 by Margaret Croyden

What can I say about this production that would be positive? Almost nothing. Except that the great Shakespeare play is still great with its superb quotable lines that every school child knows. And from that point of view I tried to listen very carefully. For "Caesar" has been the most popular Shakespeare on every school curriculum, and it is one of my favorite plays. But it all ends there. Casting the star Denzel Washington as Brutus was a huge mistake. Washington cannot handle a role that complicated and that nuanced. Brutus need an actor with a big voice, a huge presence, and the ability to carve out the contradictions that made the noble Brutus turn killer. Denzel Washington cannot do that: he has no bearing; he seems uncomfortable; his body language is ungraceful; his voice and articulation are poor: he can barely be heard at times, and his lines are sometimes muffled. Besides the beauty of his face that a camera can catch, does not come across on stage. What was the director thinking?

Another awful performance is Eamnonn Walker in the important role of Marc Antony. By now all literate people know Antony's "Friends, Romans, Countryman" speech and recognize the famous lines (as well Marlon Brando remarkable Antony in the movies). I was appalled by an actor playing this role with a strained, rasping voice who not only threw the lines away but failed to deliver the bitter irony implicit in the speech. What I heard was a lot of unintelligible phrasing. What was the director thinking?

But one performance did stand out: Colm Feore in the important role of Cassius, the chief conspirator. Finally we heard Shakespeare rendered with an energetic, clear voice, splendid enunciation and believable character playing. That he was so good and Washington so bad threw the entire production out of balance. When the two actors stood side by side, I felt it painful to watch Washington groping for something to do and Feore plainly overshadowing him. But as good as he was, Feore could not save the production.

Now for Daniel Sullivan's "modern" conception of the play--if there was a clear conception. I am sick of modernizing Shakespeare, sick of the cheap tricks to get a laugh when, for example, the hoods are frisked with an electric mechanism. I am sick of the ugly set that looked like a bombed out tunnel instead of magnificent Rome which, at the time of the play, was in its glory. I am sick of those hoods dressed like American hoods wielding machine guns while the conspirators kill Caesar with knives, when all around we see guns. What is the logic in this?. And then there is the diminutive Caesar (William Sadler) on a massage table (almost naked) getting into his robe, but not before he exposes his backside, while his men look on. Then there is blood all over the stage and on the killers' hands but it looked like red ink, which undoubtedly it was.

I have yet to see upgraded Shakespeare that made much sense, or added another dimension to the work. (If you know of one write me). Daniel Sullivan has directed numerous plays; his bio is indeed impressive. So for a man with so much experience to make such obvious mistakes is perplexing. Producers and directors never learn do they? Movies stars may be great in film, but often cannot project on stage. They are lost without the cameras to catch their facial and body expressions. The camera as we know can heighten the actor's talent, so matter how small that talent may be. Evidently Broadway producers care not a fig for genuine performances. If the star sells tickets that all that is necessary. And I suppose Denzel Washington sells tickets, no matter how boring he is. So, does it pay to bring a star to Broadway even if the part is unsuitable for him or her, that is the question. Well, the top ticket for "Julius Caesar" is $100. And the houses are full. Does that answer the question? [Croyden]

Margaret Croyden's most recent book is "Conversations with Peter Brook, 1970-2000" published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux

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