Dear directors: just let Shakespeare be Shakespeare
I’m a big William Shakespeare fan. My fandom dates back to seeing Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V movie as a high school sophomore in 1996 (RIP Mr. Henry) and Mel Gibson’s 1990 performance of Macbeth when I was a senior (Thanks, Mrs. Merryman). Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 movie of Hamlet is amazing, and Anthony Hopkins was great as Othello (complete with dark tan makeup to make him look Moorish). I read Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 for fun, for Odin’s sake. He’s a great playwright, if he really did exist, and his stories are really freaking good, except maybe Romeo and Juliet.
Both John and Jazz have written about the apparent President Donald Trump assassination by a New York City theater company in their version of Julius Caesar, but I think it points out a major problem with some directors: the desire to update things for a more modern audience.
This isn’t the first time a theater company has tried to update Julius Caesar. Another New York theater company did the same thing in 2012, complete with a black Caesar who looked a teeny bit like then President Barack Obama. Minnesota’s Star Tribune loved the production.
Director Rob Melrose’s production is compact, brisk and contemporary — perfect for touring. Using a wall of video projections, set designer Neil Patel has positioned this “Caesar” in 2012, complete with news telecasts and shots of the U.S. Capitol. Sound designer Cliff Caruthers thumps the point home with lots of bass and hip-hop over scene changes. The sleek suits in Candice Donnelly’s costume scheme carry the air of modern power.
It also got a ton of praise from Noah Milliman in The American Conservative.
Director Rob Melrose has set his Caesar at our precise historical moment, in Obama’s Washington, D.C. The capital is rocked by “Occupy Rome” protests. His Caesar (the suavely confident Bjorn DuPaty) is a tall, charismatic African-American politician; he doesn’t look or sound much like Obama (he more closely recalls Michael Jordan), but the audience is unquestionably going to read him as an Obama stand-in nonetheless, particularly when his opponents bear a marked resemblance to Eric Cantor (Sid Solomon’s snappy terrier Cassius) and Mitch McConnell (Kevin Orton’s cynical old pol Casca). Even Mark Antony is recognizable as a standard Democratic politician type, Clinton/Gore division.
Milliman’s effusive praise centered particularly on the portrayal of Brutus.
(T)he director made the interesting choice to cast another African-American, William Sturdivant as Brutus, and it is his performance that really makes the play. Sturdivant does a pitch-perfect black conservative intellectual – more specifically, the thoughtful, reserved type of black conservative intellectual, a coil of carefully controlled tension. There were times I thought I was watching John McWhorter up there on stage. He managed to give Brutus a shadow of interiority that he so frequently lacks, and to add a whole other dimension of pathos to Brutus’s decision to ally with Cassius. This Brutus is not merely the noblest of Romans in the sense that he is an exemplar of the patrician class – no; he’s the one character on stage whom we know has chosen, affirmatively, to affiliate himself with the ideas for which he kills, who believes them because he believes them, and not merely because they are in his interest. It’s a splendid choice.
To that, I say, quoting King Lear, “Oh, that way madness lies, Let me shut that. No more of that.”
Trying to modernize Shakespeare to make it more hip and cool is ridiculous, especially if a theater company is attempting to portray it as Shakespeare. Put Julius Caesar in Romanesque garb, complete with marble looking steps and senators in sandals or barefoot, instead of a business suit. Make sure Macbeth is a Scotsman who killed his own king, instead of an Australian gangster looking to rise up in the world, and, for the love of Bragi, set Hamlet in Denmark not some corporation.
There’s nothing wrong with having a movie or TV show that’s inspired by Shakespeare. The old FX show Sons of Anarchy was influenced by Hamlet, but didn’t try to pretend to actually be Hamlet. Romeo Must Die and West Side Story are kind of based on Romeo and Juliet, but are different enough to not be mistaken for the Shakespeare tragedy. The Lion King, yes the Disney animated movie, is apparently kind of, sort of based on Hamlet, but also inspired by the biblical story of Joseph. There are plenty of ways to do a Shakespeare-inspired story without calling it Shakespeare.
It just comes off as cheap to do otherwise.
Edit (Taylor): Someone mentioned Olivier’s version was never filmed, and I seriously can’t remember which black and white version of Macbeth I saw (neither can my English teacher after being asked). I *do* remember watching parts of Mel Gibson’s 1990 Macbeth film, so his version replaces Olivier. It’s been 19 years, folks, give me a break.
Also…the authorship comment was a JOKE. Chillax, people.