This is not one of my favorite plays. Part of that is my allegiance to the House of Lancaster. Henry IV and Henry V seemed like my kind of guys so I was sorry to see the House of York pry back the crown from their side in Henry VI Parts I, II & III. But more than that, it’s the spectacle of a monster like Richard crushing the people around him, his family in fact, without any compunction or even much difficulty. His brothers Edward and George are oblivious to his treachery even as it is being accomplished. His other enemies are more aware but equally powerless to save themselves from his malice. He moves from outrage to outrage upping the ante at each stage. Finally, he assigns a merciless assassin to smother his nine and twelve-year-old nephews with their own pillow to ensure that they never have the chance to revenge themselves on Richard for his usurpation of their father’s crown. And then there’s the matter of Lady Anne. She is the widow of the Lancaster heir to the throne, Henry VI’s son Edward. And it was Richard who killed Edward. Having Anne agree to wed Richard is the final outrage that just makes the play a bridge too far for me. I mean, come on! Richard is a hunchbacked, withered armed, monster. Anne spits in his face and calls him a fiend and then willingly marries him. This is a tough play to understand.
Anyway, Olivier plays Richard to the hilt. He is actually comical at certain points in his jocular, two-faced portrayal of the monster. Olivier has surrounded himself with an all-star cast of Shakespearean professionals. Cedric Hardwicke is his brother King Edward IV, John Gielgud is his brother George, Duke of Clarence, Ralph Richardson is Duke of Buckingham and Claire Bloom is Lady Anne. The acting is good. It’s just that I can’t stomach the plot. To see evil just dance along while well meaning people are led to the slaughter irks me. The ending should be consolation enough. Richard gets his comeuppance and pays the price. But the play rubs me the wrong way. It’s the way that good seems to be powerless to resist evil. It’s almost as if it gives up without a fight. Oh well.
So, as you can tell I don’t love this play but I recognize that it’s really about me and my way of looking at the world. I acknowledge that this is a well-acted version of the play and the production is full of nice touches. The chanting monks, the cinematography of the battle scene, the excellent set design, the skill of the cast. Olivier’s elocution and mastery of the part demands it be seen. He gives us a consummate and thoroughgoing villain. All of it recommends this play to the Shakespeare devotee. So, I do recommend this version. It is well done and deserves high praise.
But I’d rather watch Hamlet. I’d rather watch Henry V. Richard III rankles me no little bit.
This version of Julius Caesar is interesting to me because it contains two contrasting acting types. With John Gielgud as Cassius you have a British Shakespearian actor steeped in the conventions and knowledge of the traditional theater. With Marlon Brando as Mark Antony you have a great American method actor who approaches his performance as a process of absorbing the soul of the character and living the part. And because Mark Antony’s part is so bound up with a revenge motive, he is able to bring the set speech, his “friends, romans, countrymen” speech, to life. Gielgud’s Cassius is a more intellectual character and it requires a great deal of nuance to render the part interesting. His character is of an angry disappointed man who is motivated by fear, jealousy and spite. The fine British actor James Mason is Brutus and does a masterful job of portraying the honest, intelligent patriot who slays his friend for the good of his country. Louis Calhern another American actor has the pivotal but relatively minor part of Julius Caesar. Greer Garson as Calpurnia and Deborah Kerr as Portia are Caesar’s and Brutus’s wives respectively. And there are several other good performances but essentially the main action consists of Cassius and Brutus on one side and Mark Antony on the other. Cassius draws Brutus into a conspiracy against Caesar and Mark Antony stirs a popular rebellion against the assassins.
The play is cut in half by the murder, with the first half concluded by Brando’s funeral oration for Caesar. It is one of Shakespeare’s most memorable speeches and Brando plays it to the hilt. His voice is saturated with emotion, by turns, sorrow, scorn then anger. He plays the Roman crowd and stirs them to mutiny against the “honorable men” who slew Caesar.
For Brutus and Cassius, the speeches are smaller but they still allow the characters to display their personalities. Cassius shows us his pettiness and his genuine feelings of affection for his friend. Brutus is a more austere character. Intelligence, integrity and a slightly cold persona is displayed. But at the end when his whole world starts to collapse, he allows his personal feelings to emerge somewhat and these do him credit.
This play is a study of personalities. The battle scenes are short and stylized so there isn’t a dynamism as you would see in a modern rendition of this story. Instead you have what Shakespeare would show on a stage. I don’t think Julius Caesar will appeal to everyone. It’s not exciting enough for many people. They will find it boring. But for those interested in seeing how a dying world drove friends against each other in a civil war this gives a flavor of it.
Personally, I like the play and this version of it. I’m not the biggest Brando fan but I like what he did with Mark Antony, especially the big speech. And I’m always glad to see James Mason in a production. His presence and the remarkable sound of his voice were perfect for this part. So, there’s my first Shakespeare review. That wasn’t so bad after all.