I was thrilled when Dan Sullivan invited me to play Decius Brutus and Messala in his production of Julius Caesar, starring Denzel Washington at the Belasco Theatre. I kept a rehearsal journal of the process, the first few days of which are printed below:
January 31, 2005
First rehearsal today, and signs of the plays topicality everywhere this morning. The Times headline is about Iraqis flocking to the polls to forge a new republic from the remains of a dictatorship. The arts section has a piece on the pentagon hiring a corporate consulting firm which uses lessons drawn from Shakespeare, particularly Julius Caesar, to instruct military personnel. Lt. Gen. William R. Looney III is quoted as saying “Brutus is not an honorable man. He was a traitor, and he murdered someone in cold blood…our ethos is to obey the chain of command.” At one point in the discussions with the military a parallel between the conspirators and the Bush administration was raised. “If the conspirators were in the wrong for taking violent action without hard evidence but only on suspicion of the tyrant that Caesar might become, in effect making a pre-emptive strike, couldn’t the same arguments be applied to the Bush administration invasion in Iraq and the absence of weapons of mass destruction?” The seminar leader replied, “The president had more evidence than Brutus did.”
Rehearsal hall at the 42nd street studios. I love this rehearsal space. It’s the best in the city, as far as I’m concerned, and is right across the street from The Lion King, so I can pop into my comfy dressing room to jot these notes or rest.
First rehearsals have a first day of school feeling. Since the theatre business is relatively small it almost always involves seeing friends you haven’t heard from in a while. Today I was happy to see Henry Woronicz, a fine classical actor and director who I know from my days at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and Steve Anderson, with whom I did The Kentucky Cycle on Broadway 12 years ago. Steve and I have a history of cracking each other up on stage, a habit I deplore in others and despise in myself. More of that later.
On a day like today the space vibrates with an energy that is impossible to describe. All the hopes for the production hang in the air. It is all Potential. This could be It—the great American production of Shakespeare we have all been hoping for. The show is already one third sold out, and tickets went on sale two days ago. Whatever else we may have, we have an Event on our hands.
The first hour was given over to Equity business. A union rep comes in and tells you what you need to know to protect yourself from the evil producers—or that’s how it always feels to me. The tone is slightly adversarial, and the details soporific. Eyes glaze over as she drones on about specifically how she measures the rake of the stage and the density of fog and haze used in the show. All the excitement and energy that was present minutes ago has been sucked out of the room, as if into a black hole.
Formal introductions of the producers Carol Shorenstein and Freddy DeMann followed, with heartfelt applause for those intrepid souls who put their money into the business of producing plays.
Dan Sullivan said that, contrary to his usual way of beginning rehearsals, he would “contextualize’ the production for us. The play would be set in the near future, perhaps 30 years hence. After “the oil wars” and during a worldwide depression. The place is Rome—but one that has been destroyed by terrorism, bombing and looting. Think Kabul or Baghdad after the invasion. There are few services and little technology, except for the security systems which are omnipresent. Dan called it “a world that would seem to need a Caesar.” At least, under a strict military rule, people would be able to walk the streets. There is a hunger for strong leadership. Politics is all. Everyone is looking for a way to survive, which means grabbing power. The production will be strongly psychological, and headlong—he would like to play it without an intermission.
At this point Dan presented a slide show to give us an idea what each scene would look like. For me, this was the most exciting part of the day. Slides were projected on the wall, showing us set renderings of every scene, one by one. As each scene was presented, with a specific context we could recognize from today’s headlines, the buzz in the room grew and grew. William Sadler (who is playing Caesar) was practically coming out of his chair. Each setting was brilliant, but the most exciting at this point is for the funeral orations, which will take place in front of a dilapidated act curtain, as if in a disused theatre. The plebeians will be in the aisles, the balcony and the boxes. The theatre audience will literally be the audience for Brutus and Antony. The Belasco, where we play, is an exceptionally intimate space, with tons of natural character. No matter what else happens, this will be exciting. The audience will be inches away from a major movie star who will be speaking directly to them—posing questions and asking for responses. If it works as I think it will, it will seem you are really there.
Dan then made some very brief and modest comments about regionalisms in speech, and announced that we would be coached by Liz Smith so we all sound like we come from the same world. He would, however, insist on American speech—no phony British-isms for us.
Dan then introduced Dakin Mathews, who will serve as our dramaturge. Dakin is an actor, director and scholar from the West coast, of whom I have been aware for many years, though we had never met. Dakin is something of a legend in California, where his encyclopedic understanding of Shakespeare has been common knowledge for decades. He has only recently emerged on the east coast, most notably as the adaptor and dramaturge of Jack O’Brien’s production of Henry IV parts I and II at Lincoln Center, starring Kevin Kline. Dakin also acted several small roles in that production, and did so with such ease and virtuosity that he occasionally made some of those around him (all great actors) look a little wooden by comparison. Overall, the production was hailed as the finest Shakespeare that had been done in New York for years, and the critics were unanimous in praising the adaptation. Much more about Dakin later.
Dan then directed us to begin reading the play, and, sitting around the table, we began.
First readings are torturous. Should you act, or not? Everyone says that no judgments are made at the first reading, but of course, this is a lie. Everyone is listening carefully, and, no matter how hard they may try not to, making judgments about each actor’s suitability to their role. Everyone deals with the pressure of the situation differently. Both Colm Feore as Cassius and Denzel Washington as Brutus began with glasses pushed down on the ends of their noses, giving them a professorial air. Colm seemed to deal with first reading nerves by going very quickly, demonstrating his lightning facility with the text. Denzel dealt with his nerves by occasional humorous comments, and by flashing his mesmerizing smile. He kept it very light, avoiding any early commitment to the life and death stakes that the play will ultimately require. What was immediately apparent was that he had “chops”. He is a true actor, who can handle classical text and project authority. There are many examples of producers who have cast movie stars because of box office appeal, regardless of whether or not they are right or ready for the role. Denzel is both right and ready, and would be cast as Brutus whether or not he had become a star. In fact, one is tempted to say that if he wasn’t a star this would make him one. Anyway, the point is moot, because he IS a star, which is apparent from the moment he enters a room. Was all this clear in the first few minutes of the reading? Yes.
Bill Sadler’s Caesar is, at least for today, candid and conversational. His vocal and physical resemblance to Donald Rumsfeld is spooky. Does anyone else notice it? Was Dan aware of it when he cast him? Am I reading too much into the modern parallels?
My own role (as Decius Brutus in the first half of the play and Mesalla in the second) is a challenge. In Lion King, I play one of the leads, but here I am definitely on the supporting team. The first sign of my status occurs when I see the call sheet and my name is misspelled—Patrick Paige. This misspelling recurs everywhere—on scripts, costume tags, security badges. I feel silly bringing it up to management, but I want it fixed.
My lines are few and far between, so at the ten minute break when Dan Sullivan stops me to say “It sounds wonderful, Patrick” I nearly collapse with gratitude. In so many ways, playing small roles is harder: if Macbeth screws up “If it were done…” he’s still got the dagger speech, the banquet, and “Tomorrow and tomorrow…”. If Seyton blows “The queen, my lord, is dead” he might as well blow his own brains out.
After the initial reading Dan turned to Dakin, asked us to begin reading again from the beginning of the play. I think I was not the only one who was a little bit surprised. In most instances the dramaturge speaks when spoken to by the director. Questions might be posed to him/her when historical issues are addressed, or when textual variations occur. The dramaturge, for example, would be the expert on discrepancies between folio and quarto versions of a text (is it “too, too sullied” or “too, too solid”?), as well as on the manners and mores of the period. But, in this case it was clear that Dan had handed the reigns of the rehearsal to Dakin, and we would be methodically breaking each speech and scene down with his guidance.
Dakin began by saying that a great deal of his job would entail exploring “why do they say it exactly this way?” My heart beat a little faster. This is what I came for. This is the work that so often gets skipped over, but which is, in fact, the lifeblood of any worthwhile Shakespearean performance. He went on: “Shakespeare studied the Romans from the time he was seven years old. He knew them intimately, and he is working very closely from his source material, which is Plutarch. This is one of the times we know exactly which book Shakespeare had open on his desk while he was writing the play. He saw these people as rhetorical beings, so as far as he’s concerned, he’s writing naturalism.”
As the reading progressed, he used an image in one of Cassius’ early speeches to demonstrate the layered rhetoric and buried imagery in the play. Cassius, in deriding Caesar says:
“His coward lips did from their color fly…”
Which seems straightforward enough. He was frightened, and therefore his lips lost their color. But Dakin pointed out that the color didn’t fly from the lips, the lips flew from the color. “Color” is a synonym for flag (as in the modern “color guard”). The military image, then, (from the soldier Cassius about his superior officer Caesar) is of a frightened combatant deserting his standard in mid-battle. Dakin called this “the quick cut”. He noted the contemptuous alliteration (coward/color) and the density of insult packed into a single line of blank verse. I’ve lived with this play for over 25 years and played both Antony and Brutus in past productions. I had never noticed that image.
Colm Feore asks: “How do we make the audience get all that?”
I love Dakin’s answer: “You don’t.” This is what Peter Brook calls “the living process behind the work”. We see the bird in the sky, but not the air currents on which it glides. So little of what animates us in life is visible. Dakin posits that the audience only gets a small percentage of what we do. If we do 70% they might get 49% If we do 110% they will get 80.
I gravitate to the seat I was in yesterday, next to Bill Sadler. He is concerned about a posting on the callboard which shows him scheduled for a wig fitting. It turns out to be an appointment to have a fake beard made. The opening scene calls for a huge banner with a photograph of Caesar, and as the artist’s renderings of the banner show a bearded Caesar, and as Bill is clean shaven, a wig designer is employed. Bill is justifiably concerned. He doesn’t even know the character himself yet, and decisions are being made about what Caesar looks at in the mirror each morning. This is one of the most maddening things about the institutional and commercial theatre. The photograph for the banner has to be taken this week to be ready in time for the first performance. As there is no time to grow a beard, a fake one will be used in the picture, and he will grow one for performance. Personally, I’m disappointed to hear it, because I loved the Rumsfeld resemblance. On another level, I’m angry that actors have, over time, ceded this part of the creative process to directors and designers. If Olivier had not been able to create his own look for Richard III we would never have cowered from the indelible black page boy wig and Big Bad Wolf nose which defined that character for a generation. The mask is a crucial part of the characterization. Indeed, many fine actors begin their search for a character with just this sort of external detail. I remember being cast as Captain Brazen in a production of The Recruiting Officer at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and being shown a fully developed drawing of a fat man in uniform at the first rehearsal. The image was complete with red wig and mutton chops, and while quite beautiful out of context, bore no relation to how I would be able to play the role. It was topped off by a tall round captain’s hat which looked a bit like a bishop’s miter. This was undoubtedly historically accurate, but once doffed in the presence of a lady it left the actor holding it in one hand like a can of Folgers coffee. By contrast, the tri-cornered hat I had found in my own research could be rakishly held with hand on hip. You could fan yourself with it, make a bow, gesture with it, toss it in the air—the variations were endless and empowering. I had a brief conversation with the director, who asked me to “live with” the design for a while, and see if it could be made work. At my first costume fitting I told the designer that, while it was still early in rehearsal and I hadn’t finalized many choices, I felt sure that Brazen was not a fat man. Finding the “center” of a character is an important part of characterization for me, and I knew that Brazen was centered in his chest. As his name suggests, Captain Brazen is a braggart and a swaggerer— based on the Commedia character of the boasting soldier—and is puffed up with his own self importance. I had begun to work with an image of a fantail pigeon, a bird so puffed in the chest it looks like it is nearly falling backward. The design I was offered suggested that Brazen be centered much lower, in the stomach—suggesting a man who is all appetite like Belch or Falstaff. This was just plain wrong, and I said so. Again, I was asked to try the padding for a while. I should have known better, but I agreed. Of course, once you have agreed to the shape of a character, you have agreed to the size of the costume. It would be very difficult to alter it at a later date. I expressed my reservations, but, as is so often the case, I was afraid of being labeled “difficult” or “a diva” so I relented.
At the final run-through in the rehearsal hall the invited audience laughed at nearly everything I did. I felt on the verge of making a real success in the role. Then we moved into the theatre and put on the costumes, and every single laugh vanished. The character fell flat. There was simply nothing I could do. The silhouette created by the designer bore no relation to the man I had created over four weeks of rehearsal. For the first time in my career, I offered the director a choice. He either had the wrong actor or the wrong costume. I would happily bow out of the show if he felt that the costume was right, but I could not wear it. The entire costume had to be remade overnight, at tremendous inconvenience and expense to the theatre. The laughs which I had garnered in the rehearsal space returned, and the performance was a success. But all of it could have been avoided if the director and designer had consulted the actor before making such crucial decisions about the character. For the ancient Greek actor, creating the mask was a sacred part of his process. Actors need to risk being labeled “difficult'” and reclaim this part of their craft.
Still at the table. We are introduced to Jack Willis, who has joined us to play Casca. Jack is heavyset, with close-cropped hair and a voice which is a cross between Harvey Feirstein and Truman Capote. He gives a bold, eccentric reading. Dakin points out that Casca appears to have one character in the first scene, and a completely different outlook in the next. People behave in contradictory ways in life but were fixed character types on stage and in literature before Shakespeare came along. Harold Bloom went so far as to say that Shakespeare “invented the human being” in literature. Casca’s portrayal of himself as someone who doesn’t care about or fear anything is revealed as a mask when he is confronted with a terrifying storm.
It is a useful rule of thumb to remember that the more a character boasts of fearlessness, the more frightened he probably is inside. Macbeth is universally renowned for his bravery—but is in fact terrified throughout most of the play. The mask of bravery is a compensation for the enormity of the fear.
Dakin draws our attention to the metallic imagery used in the play. Brutus says that Casca was “Quick mettle (metal) when he was at school”. Cassius says “You are dull, Casca”, and that Brutus’ “honorable mettle may be wrought from that it is disposed.” Men are not pure metal, but alloys—a combination of hard and soft qualities. Both Caesar and Brutus claim to be made of one thing only, and that is their downfall. Cassius asks Brutus “Can you see your face?” No. We cannot, ultimately know ourselves. To think we can is folly, (at least in this play) and may lead to tragedy. We count on our friends to reflect our true selves back to us.
“I, your glass, will modestly discover
To yourself, that of yourself which you yet
Know not of.”
But in this play friendship is dangerous territory. Brutus kills his friend, Caesar. Cassius seduces his friend, Brutus, away from his better nature, using trickery and lies. As usual, Shakespeare is not providing answers, but posing questions. What is a friend?
Dakin played Casca in Dan’s last production of Caesar. He must have been remarkable. He also played Brutus in a recent production. A friend of mine saw that one and was later cast as Brutus himself. He said he failed in it because he couldn’t get Dakin’s indelible portrayal out of his head.
During the storm scene, Casca tells Cassius that:
“The senators tomorrow
Mean to establish Caesar as a king;
And he shall wear his crown by sea and land…”
Summoning my courage, I point to this as the biggest event in the scene. When Cassius is given this information, all previous plans have to be abandoned or put on the fast track. Casca and Cassius had agreed in the last scene to dine tomorrow. That dinner, and all other plans are now replaced with a burgeoning emergency. Brutus must be convinced tonight, no matter how late it is, and Caesar must be assassinated tomorrow. Dakin doesn’t seem to hear me
In fact, my point is largely ignored by everyone, except by Bill Sadler who leans toward me with enthusiasm to discuss the idea further. Bill is my kind of actor. Always looking for the human needs and behavior which makes the language necessary. Already, his Caesar is a revelation to me. A relatively small man with piercing eyes and a wiry frame, we never doubt that he could have emerged as the unquestionable leader of this society. Even in early readings, every image is used for a purpose. Caesar’s arrogance and outbursts seem inevitable. Bill is not content with “That’s just an expression” or “In Shakespeare’s day they talked that way.” No. They didn’t. Why does Caesar talk this way? Now. In this moment. Bill asks the right questions and comes up with unique and interesting answers.
I make a mental note to be quiet and keep my ideas for this journal. Time is pressing on us, and not everyone can have a voice. If something is truly crucial, Dan, Dakin and the rest are sure to find it.
This episode also makes me take a silent pledge to treat supporting and ensemble players with the utmost respect when I am in the leading role. There truly is a caste system in the theatre world. Musicals, in particular, are cruel that way. In many productions the principal performers rehearse separately from the ensemble, and rarely meet or socialize with them. This is a waste of a tremendous resource. Michael Bennett tapped the wisdom that was hidden in the chorus line and created one of the longest running musicals of all time.
When we get to Brutus’ soliloquy in act two Dakin does a beautiful, line by line dissection of the speech. Each argument Brutus attempts collapses. Each metaphor and each image proves inadequate to the task of convincing himself that Caesar must die. Most soliloquies begin with a premise which is then explored. Macbeth, pondering a similar action, says:
“If it were done when ’tis done,
Then t’were well it were done quickly.”
The speech begins with “if”. For Macbeth, the murder is not yet decided.
Brutus, on the other hand, begins with his mind made up, and searches for a reason to justify what has already been concluded. Or perhaps, more actively, tries (and fails) to find a way to escape his initial premise.
“It must be by his death. And for mine own part
I know no personal cause to spurn at him…”
He begins with “must”, and creates an illogical string of rhetoric to support it which he admits is unpersuasive:
“And since the quarrel
Will bear no color for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus; that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities…”
I can’t help but think of the inverted logic which precipitated the U.S. invasion of Iraq. According to Richard Clarke (and others close to the president) the neoconservatives were determined to topple Saddam Hussein from their first day in office, and searched for reasons to justify what they had already decided. Saddam was not a threat, but might become one. This is Brutus argument regarding Caesar:
“Then, lest he may: prevent.”
Dakin observes that Cassius uses precisely this argument when he advocates removing Antony as well, and Brutus rejects it. He is not convinced by the very argument he used on himself! And, as we know, the decision to spare Antony is a fatal error.
Denzel squirms in his seat.
“Why?! Why does he do that?”
He is struggling with Brutus’ hypocrisy and naiveté.
“You have to understand, I’m from uptown. We just don’t make this kind of mistake.”
Denzel is on a relentless search for the truth of this character. As one of the finest film actors in the world, he knows that the camera picks up even a flicker of falseness, and he is applying that standard to the stage as well. Working from the inside out, listening and responding, he finds it hard to believe that he would trust or be fooled by Eammon Walker’s Marc Antony. He perceives the danger there, and finds it hard to deny.
“I can hear the audience now: ‘Don’t do it, Denzel!'”
Dan Sullivan reminds us that Antony is a party boy, smelling of alcohol. He is not considered a political threat. But Denzel is responding to the reality he finds right in front of his nose, and I admire the rigor of his search for the truth.
When we get to the funeral orations, I’m struck by the differences in our four leading men. Every actor’s process is different, but we could not have chosen four more disparate techniques.
Colm Feore (Cassius) is squarely in the classical mode. His mantra is the text, the text, the text. He reads swiftly and decisively in long arcs of thought. His diction could cut glass. You can hear the alternating soft and strong stresses of the pentameter as he makes his arguments. He acts on the line, pausing only when absolutely necessary. His choices are made from clues in the script. At the end of Act One he points up the sibilance of:
“And after this, let Caesar seat him sure,
For we will shake him, or worse days endure.”
If there is a weakness in this emphasis on the text, it is that he sometimes seems to be playing toward conclusions he has made in his private study, rather than responding in the moment and searching for the truth in the rehearsal room.
Denzel Washington’s (Brutus) motto is “Be honest”. He literally repeats this to himself as he prepares his work. “Be honest. Be honest.” He works with the text and through it, but his choices are made very slowly, and not until they arise organically from the situation. He is not nearly as experienced with Shakespeare as Colm, and his verse speaking, at this point, lacks the ease and fluidity which marks the great classical performers. This contrast between the leading men makes for interesting rehearsals—as Colm acts full out and off book opposite Denzel, who has his nose buried in his script and is barely audible as he investigates the scene. Watching this, I realize my process is closer to Colm’s, which makes me admire Denzel even more. It takes courage to go slowly.
Bill Sadler (Caesar) is also rigorous about finding the truth of the scene, but his process is bolder. He seems unafraid to make audacious choices, and equally unafraid to abandon them if they fall flat. He has the ability to make the language sound new minted, as if he is coining the famous phrases at that very moment, but he does not evince any formal training in this regard. He is very much “in the moment”. He seems to have a tremendous appetite for the work, and relishes rehearsal. To me, he proves that an actor who normally works on modern material can, nevertheless, bring tremendous vitality to classical text.
Eammon Walker (Marc Antony) is an enigma to me. British, with a strong cockney accent, he seems to have had little experience with Shakespearean text. His instincts tend to be emotional and highly theatrical, in spite of the fact that he has performed extensively on television. He whispers, hisses, shouts and glares. At this point it is difficult to believe that the crowd would find Antony’s speech over Caesar’s body more honest and compelling than Brutus’ oration.
Also, at this point, the text is very difficult to understand. Operative words are swallowed and modifiers are stressed. This, of course, was true in the early stages of some of the greatest performances of all time. Marlon Brando was inaudible as he rehearsed to play Stanley Kowalski, and Lee J. Cobb famously mumbled his way through rehearsals for Death of a Salesman. Dan Sullivan is a wizard at casting, and rarely errs in this regard. It will be fascinating to watch this performance develop.