Julius Caesar takes a controversial, Trump-inspired look at democracy and power
There’s a line in Julius Caesar, written in 1599 and originally set in 44 BC, where the Roman senator Cassius asks, “How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown?” It comes shortly after Cassius, Brutus, and a whole host of Roman conspirators unite to stab Julius Caesar, fearing that he was on the path to becoming a tyrannical dictator. (Spoiler alert for a 400-year-old play and a 2,000-year-old historical event.) Like many of William Shakespeare’s best lines, there’s a double meaning, as the Romans wonder whether future democracies will face the same moral questions they do, and Shakespeare not-so-subtly nods to future performances of his play.
In the Public Theater’s new staging of Julius Caesar, the state unborn is New York City’s Central Park, where Caesar (played by Scandal‘s Gregg Henry) is not a Roman politician but a blonde-haired blowhard, who bathes in a golden bathtub and wears a way-too-long red tie that dangles below his belt. His wife, Calpurnia (Tina Benko), speaks with a stiff Slavic accent and bats his hand away when he reaches for hers in public. The Public Theater has made it no secret that in their staging of Julius Caesar, performed at the Delacorte Theater as part of Shakespeare in the Park’s annual free series, Caesar has more than a little in common with President Donald Trump. The Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, helmed this production, and under his direction, Shakespeare’s words have been left almost entirely unchanged — which is why it’s so unsettling to see a character who looks like our current commander-in-chief say 400-year-old lines like, “Who is it in the press that calls on me?” or “He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.” Only three words have been added to the entire play, so that when Casca (Teagle F. Bougere) ruminates on Caesar’s unflinching popularity, he now says, “If Caesar had stabbed their mothers on 5th Avenue, they would have done no less.” (While campaigning, Trump infamously said, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”)
As a result, many conservative pundits and brands have spoken out against the production in outrage (sponsors like Delta Air Lines and Bank of America pulled support), objecting to the on-stage assassination of the Caesar character because of his similarities to Trump. These critics, of course, are entirely missing the point of the play — if for no other reason than the fact that Julius Caesar is against the assassination of Caesar. Rome falls into chaos and all the conspirators end up dead after his demise. It’s hardly a ringing endorsement for a violent coup. And so despite right-wing headlines that claim otherwise, the Public’s version of Julius Caesar is by no means calling for violence against the president. Instead, this staging is far less interested in exploring the psychology of Caesar (or Trump) than it is in examining the inner workings of democracy — how public opinion can be easily swayed, how even the noblest of intentions can sow chaos, how violence can upend representative government.
In Shakespeare’s original text, no less than four characters could be considered the play’s protagonist — Cassius, Brutus, Marc Antony, and Caesar — but in the Public’s production, Brutus is the clearest, most sympathetic candidate, played by House of Cards’ Corey Stoll. Stoll imbues the senator with a cautious idealism, and even as his fellow politicians (led by John Douglas Thompson as the cunning Cassius) begin to plot against Caesar’s increasing tyranny, Brutus maintains a clear head. It’s his idealism that is his downfall, as his love of Rome and democracy leads him to join up with the conspirators and plot Caesar’s death. (Tony winner Nikki M. James is also a standout as Brutus’ wife, Portia, even though she only appears in a handful of scenes.) On Caesar’s side is Elizabeth Marvel (House of Cards, Homeland) as Marc Antony, playing the gender-swapped politician as a fierce Southerner and delivering Antony’s famed “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech with firebrand intensity. The cast definitely has a little fun with the show’s modern setting — late in the show, Caesar’s nephew Octavius (Robert Gilbert) shows up in a blazer, flak jacket, and Jared Kushner-style sunglasses — but their nuanced performances make it clear that this show is less about Team Trump and more about the moral implications of power.
Caesar isn’t 100-percent analogous with our times, and the show can get a little heavy-handed in trying to draw parallels between 44 B.C. and 2017. (Protesters wear pink pussy hats and Guy Fawkes masks, while Caesar’s supporters don red baseball hats that read: “Build Rome in a day.”) But the Public’s production is less interested in setting up a perfect analogy than it is in using Caesar as a jumping-off point, sparking discussion about power and justice. Bringing these complicated themes to the public for free is a worthwhile cause — which is why it’s such a shame that Delta, Bank of America, and others have withdrawn support for Shakespeare in the Park over the staging. Although the Public’s version isn’t perfect, it’s a worthy attempt to bring Shakespeare’s most deeply democratic work into the present, with a lively, contemplative production. What could be more noble than that? A-