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Thursday, 4 September 2008

Plummer and James Triumphant in Caesar and Cleopatra

Caesar and Cleopatra
By George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Des McAnuff
Featuring Christopher Plummer, Nikki M. James, Steven Sutcliffe, Dianne D’Aquila, Peter Donaldson, Gordon S. Miller

The story: On the eve of Julius Caesar’s invasion of Egypt, the Roman general wanders the desert and ponders his role to the giant sphinx. He is overheard by the 16-year-old queen Cleopatra, who does not recognize him and is hiding from Caesar whom she believes is a cannibal. She is temporarily without her throne, but Caesar sees potential in her fiery spirit and promises to help turn her into a ruler and take back her rightful place. However, the Egyptians do not easily bow to the invading Romans or to a queen who has a Roman as a mentor, and as events turn ever more dangerous, the generous Caesar learns that Cleopatra’s intense ambition may overthrow all his philosophical lessons in political leadership.

For those unfamiliar with Shaw’s plays (usually performed at that other theatre festival), one could be excused if one believed Caesar and Cleopatra would be a historical tragedy along the same lines as Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar or Antony and Cleopatra. However, while politics is a main theme of this play, this play is funny – there are so many quips and one-liners and significant pauses and back-handed insults that in less skilled hands the importance of the political principles would be lost altogether.

The indomitable Christopher Plummer plays Caesar, his comic timing and desert-dry delivery of a good portion of those one-liners is so dead-on and natural it is as if he is having a normal conversation in his own living room. As smooth as he is with wit, Mr. Plummer as easily moves to sorrow and regret. His sternness as he rebukes Cleopatra’s flippant dismissal of soldiers’ lives is palpable, as is his distress in the belief he has caused their deaths by invading Egypt unnecessarily (read: Iraq). He moves from being a philosophical leader to a sly strategist, from flattered idol to patient and fond mentor, and does so with effortless charm, revealing why Caesar is a man to be loved and feared at the same time.

Mr. Plummer has an obvious rapport with Nikki M. James, who plays Cleopatra. She has obviously worked hard on vocal projection since opening the grimly received Romeo and Juliet, and seems far more comfortable with Shaw’s prose than Shakespeare’s poetry; but here, her work has paid off in spades. From the farthest corners of the balcony seating one can see and hear that Ms. James looks and sounds as petulant and child-like as a 16-year-old spoiled queen should, but also, in the second half, as a queen who discovers her own mind - and her set of claws. She delivers the barbs about Caesar’s age with an innocence and naivety of a young but selfish queen, but is just as effective as she chillingly – almost gleefully - orders her nurse to assassinate one of her politicians.

There are numerous strong supporting performances as well – director Des McAnuff certainly chose his team well. Diane D’Aquila is at first quirkily funny as Cleopatra’s nurse, Ftatateeta (a superstar in her own mind), but is could induce nightmares as Ftatateeta grows ever-more sinister and viper-like as her mistress’s own sense of power grows. In a cleverly choreographed fight scene Ms. D’Aquila gives a Roman sentinel (Ian Lake) a run for his money, abetted by Gordon S. Miller as the genial and unflappable Apollodorus. The completely flappable Britannus is played by Steven Sutcliffe (looking remarkably like Errol Flynn, especially as he enters one scene on a winch); he is hilarious as he stodgily insists, dead-pan, on propriety in the ‘scandalous’ Egyptian palace. Britannus’ loyalty for Caesar is matched by Rufio’s, portrayed here by Peter Donaldson with an impatient gruffness that nevertheless allows Rufio’s fondness for the general to peek through his rough exterior. John Vickery’s as the just Lucius Septimus has a lovely moment of putting Caesar in his place, and Timothy D. Stickney brings both a sense of righteous pride and dignity to the role of Pothinus, the deposed King’s tutor.

The sets and costumes of Caesar and Cleopatra are as excellent as the performances. The set, designed by Robert Brill, comprises the shadowy suggestion of a sphinx, enormous pillars, the prow of a golden boat, and a glossy black floor reminiscent of obsidian painted with hieroglyphics. The costumes, by Paul Tazewell are gorgeous representations of Egyptian and Roman robes in bright, shimmering, pleated fabrics and rich colours. The nearly motionless figures of Egyptian gods - actors dressed in ebony and gold costumes, complete with golden masks of Horus, Anubis and other Egyptian deities - are the crowning glory to this beautifully designed and acted production.

Although Caesar and Cleopatra continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until November 8, tickets are going fast. Funny as well as poignant for our times, this is one play that should not be missed.

1 comment:

  1. I actually like watching Timothy better on stage than anything else! What an awesome actor he is :)


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