Friday, August 22, 2008

Casear and Cleopatra

George Bernard Shaw always has something to teach in his plays, whether it’s something as profound as Jack Tanner discovering the life force in Man and Superman or something as basic and class-defining as speaking properly in Pygmalion. Once again we have the teacher and the pupil in the form of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, and once again we have the situation where the master becomes the pupil.

Christopher Plummer takes the stage here at Stratford like the consummate performer that he is, and regardless of how many other things you’ve seen him in, be it in film or on stage, you never think of him as Christopher Plummer, but as the character, and that is the true hallmark of a fine actor. You’re not seeing Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music or General Chang in Star Trek Six, as millions of movie goers think of him; you’re seeing Julius Caesar. And not the Julius Caesar of Shakespeare, either, but a man with a sense of humor, limits, and self-awareness that isn’t seen in any other portrayal of him. Shaw’s voice is very clear in this play, but it’s not so overwhelming that you forget that you are looking at a historical figure about whom everyone thinks they know and who’s famous utterance, “Et tu, Brute?” is so well-known it shows up in cross-word puzzles every week. Mr. Plummer handles the role with effortless grace and charm so that you care deeply about Caesar, regardless of his manifestation as a conqueror.

But he would have a lot rougher go at it if he didn’t have the amazing counterpoint of Nikki M. James as Cleopatra. She is both a girl and a woman, a petulant child and a powerful queen; endearing and frightening. Shaw knew how to write women of equality, and he does so here, but in the free-flowing and utterly devastating performance Ms. James gives, you feel as if Shaw’s vision of a 16-year-old girl taking on and holding her own against a much older and more experienced warrior was written with Ms. James in mind. She’s given the thankless job of taking a character who has been portrayed in so many ways and has become such an archetype that the mere mention of the name “Cleopatra” gives you visions of Elizabeth Taylor (and Tallulah Bankhead) that all you can think of are the really bad jokes about asps (i.e. “fangs for the mammary”). Not this time. Not only does Cleopatra become fully dimensional, Shaw even tweaks Shakespeare by giving us a prequel, as it were, for Antony and Cleopatra. In this case, take the Shaw.

The rest of the cast does a great job, including Diane D’Aquila as Ftatateeta and Steven Sutcliffe as Brittanus. The set, by Robert Brill, was simple yet powerful with towering sandstone pillars and portions of a sphinx. The Festival stage, which was the original three-quarter thrust designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch, was the right venue for this play; Shaw does well in three dimensions, and director Des McAnuff knew how to make it work without making the actors look like they had to be constantly moving to be seen by the audience; a technique a lot of directors in thrust and round have yet to master.

Next up; tomorrow Christopher Plummer does a reading of Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang, adapted from the classic childrens story by Mordecai Richler.