Shakespeare and television would not appear to be made for each other. But a glorious new TV production of "Julius Caesar" shatters that preconception tonight and gets public TV's series of "Shakespeare Plays," probably the most monumental undertaking in its history, off to a magnificent start.
All of Shakespeare's plays will be presented on public TV in newly taped or filmed versions over the next six years.In addition to "Julius Caesar," the plays to be seen this season are "As You Like It" (Feb. 28), "Romeo and Juliet" (March 14), "Richard II" (March 28), "Measure for Measure" (April 11) and "Henry VIII" (April 25).
To judge from the first telecast, which is nearly three hours in length and will be seen at 8 p.m. on Channel 26 and other public TV stations, the goal has been not to produce letter-perfect, leather-bound, scholarly versions of the plays -- about as ghastly a prospect as there is -- but to make them good television, to present them as if Shakespeare had written them with television in mind.
"Julius Caesar," produced on tape in a studio at the BBC, is a reminder not only of the particular glories of this play or Shakespeare's plays in general, but of how powerful television can be when deployed by someone with a sense of purpose and technical resourcefulness. In this case, director Herbert Wise, who already had one fling with Roman politics by doing "I, Claudius," is the hero of the enterprise, for he has put old Julius on tape with spellbinding immediacy and urgency. The greatest play ever written about politics becomes one of the greatest television programs ever made about politics.
Some of the TV techniques Wise uses are just fundamentally sound, like having monologues that are usually spoken aloud by characters to themselves turned into voiceover thoughts heard on the soundtrack. Because this is television and not the stage, characters don't have to thrash about shouting everything, and so Caesar's "Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar," which almost always sounds a little silly when bellowed, can now be whispered, so quietly and poignantly that the familiarity of the words yields to meaning. If you have tears, prepare to shed them then.
Wise manages a physical austerity which never goes all arch, the way it did in the old MGM Hollywood version; in the wrong hands, "Julius Caesar" can degenerate into a toga party staged in honor of pillars. It is also gratifying that the company of actors under Wise's direction resists the common temptation to get lost in the glory of words for words' sake; nearly every speech is charged with purpose and energy.
Wise is as industrious in exercising television as Orson Welles was with radio; there is an essential respect apparent that is too rarely evident in TV productions. Sometimes even the British forget what Wise reemphasizes here: that there is nothing so inherently prosaic or mechanical about the television camera or screen that prevents them from being enlisted in the service of masterpieces, or that television is somehow too lowly a medium for anything of esthetic importance.
In other words, Wise lifts the wool that commercial television has held over our eyes for many of the past 30 years.
The fluidity of camera movement and cutting make "Julius Caesar" race along, particularly in the first hour leading up to the assassination. Wise and his players convey a chilling sense of conspiracy and crossed motives; they have made the play, to be a little crude about it, a kind of "All the Emperor's Men" with reverberations of every dark intrigue that did ever go awry.
Wise is fluent with the essential component of TV's visual vocabulary, the close-up, and his actors adapt to these tight shots beautifully. Richard Pasco as Brutus has the most haunted and haunting pawn's face, and Keith Michell as Antony is the quintessential maestro of expediency and opportunism. Charles Gray makes Caesar convincingly world-weary and rumpled, but it is a pity that Shakespeare wrote only small parts for his wife, played here by Elizabeth Spriggs, and Portia, played by Virginia McKenna.
It is costing the BBC and Time-Life Television $13.5 million to produce all 37 Shakespeare plays and New York's WNET about $100,000 each to present them here. Thank heaven they haven't mounted any extravagant introductory packaging to "explain" the plays to us; instead, O.B. Hardison, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, makes a few stiff but appropriate remarks before the start of the first play tonight.
He says that Shakespeare's plays are as "contemporary as the morning headlines," which sounds slightly like, "the play's not the thing -- the message is." With "Julius Caesar," however, the relevance is stunningly clear, and the production succeeds in bringing that relevance to the surface without mannerism or meddlesome adaptation.
"Julius Caesar" may be a more meaningful play today than when Shakespeare wrote it, because he could not have known how prescient an assassin Cassius was when he asked, "How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over, in states unborn and accents yet unknown?"
Only television could make this great tragedy as accessible as it is eloquent. Why, man, there's a contraption for you.