Whether ‘Julius Cae­sar’ or ‘Richard II,’ the play­wright’s truths are for all time

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - charles.mcnulty @la­

BY CHARLES MCNULTY THE­ATER CRITIC >>> SAN DIEGO — Shake­speare clearly lies out­side the right-wing at­tack ma­chine’s area of ex­per­tise. While Bre­it­bart News and friends were busy wag­ing a full-scale war against the New York Pub­lic The­ater’s pro­duc­tion of “Julius Cae­sar” in Cen­tral Park, there wasn’t even a Drudge Re­port blip on “King Richard II,” an­other Shake­spearean drama that could put Don­ald Trump in unf lat­ter­ing light.

To be fair to the Fox News f lamethrow­ers, the blond wig Richard dons early on in the out­door pro­duc­tion at San Diego’s Old Globe looks noth­ing like Trump’s coif­fure. But you’d think a drama about the de­po­si­tion and mur­der of a king tem­per­a­men­tally unf it to lead a na­tion would be the last straw for con­ser­va­tive blovi­a­tors con­vinced that Shake­speare has joined the re­sis­tance.

I didn’t see Oskar Eustis’ con­tro­ver­sial pro­duc­tion of “Julius Cae­sar,” which ended June 18. (The mi­nor dis­rup­tions by pro­test­ers had as lit­tle ef­fect on the run as I sus­pect the with­drawal of sup­port by cow­ardly cor­po­rate spon­sors will have on the fu­ture of free Shake­speare in Cen­tral Park.) I am cer­tain, how­ever, that the as­sas­si­na­tion of Cae­sar isn’t the cul­mi­na­tion of the tragedy but a turn­ing point in a drama ques­tion­ing whether vi­o­lence is ever an ap­pro­pri­ate po­lit­i­cal tool. (For those with the high school sopho­more stamina to make it to the end of the play’s fifth act, the an­swer is a re­sound­ing no.)

In nor­mal times, it might not be ad­vis­able to foist such an in­ex­act anal­ogy be­tween Trump and Cae­sar. Eustis’ pro­duc­tion kit­ted the Ro­man ruler out in Trumpian style. Suit, tie and the de­fi­ant hay­like crest were un­can­nily sim­i­lar. Risk­ing lam­poon overkill, a Me­la­nia-in­spired Calpur­nia spoke with an Eastern Euro­pean ac­cent of in­de­ter­mi­nate ori­gin.

All of this made the bru­tal stab­bing scene at the Se­nate house nat­u­rally ex­plo­sive. But the sud­den switch in rhetor­i­cal reg­is­ters, the fa­mous “Et tu, Brute?” that Cae­sar ut­ters be­fore the death blow, fore­shad­ows the truths Bru­tus (the tragedy’s real pro­tag­o­nist) will glimpse all too late about the un­pre­dictabil­ity of his­tory and the opac­ity of even the purest mo­tives.

“Julius Cae­sar” doesn’t re­quire sen­sa­tion­al­iz­ing Trumpery to seem mod­ern. The play grap­ples with such top­i­cal con­cerns as the fick­le­ness of pub­lic sen­ti­ment, the rhetor­i­cal shenani­gans of dem­a­gogues and the weaponiz­ing of fake news, which Cas­sius de­ploys to con­vert Bru­tus to the con­spir­a­tors’ side.

There’s even dis­cus­sion of what to do with a leader who could kill some­one in broad day­light and not lose sup­port­ers. In re­port­ing on the slav­ish de­vo­tion of Cae­sar’s ple­beian back­ers, Casca ob­serves that “if Cae­sar had stabbed their mothers,” they would con­tinue to pledge their undy­ing love. The fate of the Repub­lic does ap­pear to be on the line, but as the sil­ver-haired Se­na­tor Cicero cau­tions, “In­deed, it is a strange-dis­posed time; But men may con­strue things after their fash­ion.”

“Julius Cae­sar” seems to me es­pe­cially timely be­cause it forces us to ques­tion the po­lit­i­cal cer­tain­ties that can en­tice cit­i­zens to take the law into their own hands. The crit­i­cal con­sen­sus was that Eustis’ pro­duc­tion did jus­tice to the play’s com­plex­ity, but it should come as no shock that the in­flam­ma­tory the­atri­cal im­agery ig­nited the me­dia mob. Equally un­sur­pris­ing, few con­ser­va­tive fire­brands felt the need to fact-check their Shake­speare.

But amid all the dumbed-down out­rage, it’s good to be re­minded that the­ater is still a dan­ger­ous art form. The rea­son Plato, the church fa­thers, gen­er­a­tions of Lords Cham­ber­lain and Jesse Helms and his Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts-ax­ing kind dis­trusted the stage had lit­tle to do with its use as a fo­rum for in­tel­lec­tual de­bate. Rather, it is the power of spec­ta­cle — the sym­bol made flesh — that has made the­atri­cal per­for­mance through­out his­tory so dis­con­cert­ing to those in au­thor­ity.

That im­age de­feats idea, or that bumper sticker van­quishes pol­icy plat­form, will not be news to any­one who was awake dur­ing the last pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. The rep­til­ian brain is still the most ef­fec­tive way of cap­ti­vat­ing a crowd. But how can the­ater artists com­mit­ted to rea­son, sub­tlety and di­alec­ti­cal thought stand a chance in a cul­ture of dis­trac­tion, dis­tor­tion and deaf­en­ing din?

Erica Sch­midt’s pro­duc­tion of “Richard II” does noth­ing to call at­ten­tion to the rel­e­vance of Shake­speare’s drama. The strength of the staging is in the lively pace of the sto­ry­telling, which un­folds on an art­fully me­dieval set by John Lee Beatty. The tale is trusted: The audience is in­vited to en­ter the play­wright’s his­tor­i­cal imag­i­na­tion with­out ex­tra-tex­tual coax­ing.

The char­ac­ter­i­za­tions are straight­for­wardly de­picted. Richard II is of­ten por­trayed as a lisp­ing, ef­fem­i­nate fop. Robert Sean Leonard doesn’t overdo the deca­dence. His Richard wears his pris­tine white gown and glit­ter­ing crown with an ar­ro­gant de­fi­ance, but he is a king with se­ri­ous char­ac­ter de­fects rather than a flouncy par­ody. His dis­re­spect for prop­erty rights is what ul­ti­mately does him in, not his ef­fete man­ner.

It’s an un­fussy por­trait of a fa­mously fussy king who finds tragic dig­nity in po­etic lan­guage only after his im­politic be­hav­ior costs him his throne. But the per­for­mance is of a piece with a pro­duc­tion that al­lows Tory Kit­tles (in the role of the usurp­ing Henry Bol­ing­broke) and Nora Car­roll (who plays for­lorn Queen Is­abel) to ex­cel with clar­ity and pro­fi­ciency.

These might seem like terms of faint praise, but I don’t in­tend them as such. The pro­duc­tion not only held my in­ter­est but also al­lowed me to pon­der (with­out any prod­ding) how this late 16th cen­tury play speaks to our po­lit­i­cally di­vi­sive mo­ment.

Richard holds fast to the be­lief that be­cause he is a di­vinely ap­pointed king, he can do what­ever he likes re­gard­less of tra­di­tion and the con­ven­tions of fair play. But in the com­pany of par­a­sitic f lat­ter­ers, he takes his royal pre­rog­a­tive too far. Over­tax­ing the poor is one thing; ran­sack­ing the rich is quite an­other.

As the dy­ing John of Gaunt (a fine Charles Janasz) mem­o­rably puts it in his pa­tri­otic paean to his home­land, “This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land, / Dear for her rep­u­ta­tion through the world, / Is now leased out, I die pro­nounc­ing it, / Like to a ten­e­ment or pelt­ing farm.”

These words may strike some as pe­cu­liarly apt for an Amer­ica in which pri­vate in­ter­ests have run roughshod over the pub­lic good. But I was more in­trigued by the way this dis­tant no­tion of the di­vine right of kings, which Shake­speare boldly chal­lenges with­out com­pletely dis­miss­ing, pro­voked me to ques­tion a few ar­ti­cles of faith in our own democ­racy.

Our con­fi­dence in our sys­tem of checks and bal­ances, to take one ex­am­ple, can some­times seem as naïve as Richard’s con­tention that “Not all the wa­ter in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm off from an anointed king.” This hereti­cal con­nec­tion is my own. But Shake­speare’s drama, with its free play of ideas ex­pos­ing the frag­ile hu­man un­der­pin­nings of so­cial in­sti­tu­tions, is what prompted its birth. Fic­tion, his­tor­i­cal and oth­er­wise, shows us our own vis­age in dis­guised form.

El­iz­a­beth I, the queen whom Shake­speare had to be care­ful not to anger, is re­ported to have com­plained, “I am Richard II, know ye not that?” Sur­rounded by po­lit­i­cal en­e­mies who were plot­ting her over­throw, she had rea­son to ob­ject that “this tragedy,” de­pict­ing the demise of a monarch who also had no heir, “was played 40 times in open streets and houses.” For­tu­nately for world lit­er­a­ture, Shake­speare’s com­pany wasn’t closed down, even though it per­formed the play at the re­quest of a few of the con­spir­a­tors on the eve of the abortive coup known as Es­sex’s Re­bel­lion.

His­tor­i­cal dis­tance may have shielded Shake­speare and his troupe from a sterner fate. He wrote not only with bal­ance and com­plex­ity but also in po­etic code — a nec­es­sary skill for a po­lit­i­cal sur­vivor who lived in times that make ours seem tame by com­par­i­son.

Shake­speare would no doubt get a kick out of be­ing the cen­ter of a 21st cen­tury me­dia firestorm, but he wouldn’t at all be sur­prised by the eye-rolling terms of the de­bate. Hu­man na­ture doesn’t change all that much. He left the pass­ing par­ti­san squalls to the pam­phle­teers, whose names are buried with their au­thors, and fo­cused on po­lit­i­cal truths that are not of an age but for all time.

Jim Cox

“RICHARD II,” with Jake Horowitz, left, and Robert Sean Leonard in the low-key pro­duc­tion at the Old Globe, tack­les a king tem­po­rar­ily un­fit to lead a na­tion.

Joan Mar­cus The Pub­lic The­ater

“JULIUS CAE­SAR,” in ex­plo­sive Pub­lic The­ater pro­duc­tion, is set in a Trumpian White House.

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