The audience gathered in New York’s Delacorte Theater in Central Park for a new rendition of William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” gasped in delight when the title character first strode across the stage, not in a toga, but adorned in a business suit and tie that fell unfashionably below his belt and sporting a presidential yellow coif of hair atop his head.
Their reaction to the Trump-like character subsided as the audience assumedly skipped ahead to the scene when they would witness (spoiler alert!) the gory assassination of this blonde, boisterous, Trumpian emperor.
Indeed, this year’s Shakespeare in the Park production, produced by the New York’s Public Theater, puts a present-day twist on the ancient tale of power, deceit and rebellion: The backdrop includes American icons and images of past presidents. Graffiti on walls proclaim calls to “Resist!” Caesar is intentionally played like Trump in dress and manner; and his wife, Calpurnia, speaks in a Slavic accent, resembling first lady Melania Trump.
While the dialogue remains almost entirely true to the original Shakespeare, there is one reference to how Caesar is so beloved by the common public that he could stab “their mothers on Fifth Avenue,” a reference to Trump’s own claim that he could shoot a person in public and be forgiven by his supporters.
In the story, a conspiracy of statesmen, worried that Caesar will assume too much power, plot to kill him on the Ides of March, the date a soothsayer warns Caesar to beware. Caesar, in his hubris, ignores the warning and pleas from his wife to stay home.
“Shakespeare’s political masterpiece has never felt more contemporary,” the theater’s promotional materials reads.
When it’s time for the assassination scene, the conspirators tear Caesar from his podium and stab him repeatedly until he’s left sprawled on stage in a mess of bloodstained clothes. Caesar’s friend, Brutus, delivers the final blow that ends his life.
The decision to portray Caesar as the nation’s president is, under any administration, a controversial artistic choice. The show’s previews opened on May 23, near the time comedian Kathy Griffin came under fire for participating in a photo shoot that depicted her holding a bloody, decapitated head in Trump’s image. She ultimately apologized. And news of this rendition of Shakespeare’s classic has stirred debate about whether it is appropriate to portray the killing of a sitting leader.
But Shakespeare’s play is no celebration of violent insurrection. As the audience that sticks around until the end learns, the aftermath of Caesar’s murder is a disaster for the conspirators and the nation.
“Julius Caesar can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means,” the play’s director, Oskar Eustis said in a statement promoting the performance. “To fight the tyrant does not mean imitating him.”