Caesar and Cleopatra

Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Des McAnuff

At the Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario
Produced by the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

A review by M. D. Ball of the performance on October 25, 2008

If ever there were words more hackneyed in the theatre than "compelling", "riveting", and "brilliant", it has to be the word "chemistry": "they had chemistry", "there was chemistry between them", "their chemistry was electric", etc. Although these expressions of praise do befit performances such as the one I'm writing about -- Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra at the Stratford Festival -- overuse has blunted their impact. Besides, these hollow expressions are so easy to grab off the shelf that they carry the taint of insincerity or indiscrimination. Work of the quality I witnessed at the Festival is more worthy of being described than being praised. Effusiveness would be an indignity.

This production floated on the two characterizations of Christopher Plummer as Caesar and Nikki M. James as Cleopatra. The relationship between Plummer and James was undeniably organic -- and arguably indissoluble. In fact, had different actors played the other roles in this production, the lock-and-key complementarity between Plummer and James would still have made their own relationship feel indigenous to their pairing.

Plummer's Caesar was a deeply self-aware man, a veteran not only of war and the strategic use of violence, but also of diplomacy and the judicious use of restraint. Plummer fashioned Shaw's Caesar into a man of perspective, balance, and proportion, though obviously within the cultural context of his own bloody epoch. And in no way did Plummer convey Caesar's worldliness more than through humor, which included chuckling at the na´vete around him, jumping on the pettiness of others, and dovetailing with their foolishness, all the while rarely missing an opportunity to efface himself. By virtue of Plummer's skill, the sense of humor that Shaw wrote into Caesar broke through like a sunbeam that illuminated the character's pragmatic understanding of human nature, along with his ability to penetrate opacity and recognize transparency.

For the audience, the most consequential outcome of this demeanor was Caesar's comfort with, or perhaps acquiescence to, reality. That comfort set the tone of this production and it cast the relationship between Caesar and everyone else on stage, especially Cleopatra. At first glance, the conqueror that Plummer rendered from Shaw's script was flippant and insouciant, indifferent to the perquisites of his station. His political savvy, though, was always operating, colored by his inescapable strengths and foibles as a man, and in the hands of a less seasoned actor, the spontaneity of Caesar's reactions might have felt rehearsed, stretching dangerously thin any implication of complexity.

In her role as Cleopatra, James created a properly irritating 16-year-old enfant terrible: petulant, conceited, and persuaded of her right to rule. James' energetic body language alone would have communicated Cleopatra's puerile arrogance, but her monotone delivery and syllable-timed elocution punctuated that arrogance like a hammer and chisel on stone. If to that we add James' use of a knifelike voice, impossible to ignore for its grating effect, the queen's personality is firmly set. James didn't neglect to give her Cleopatra the same adolescent mood swings that presumably afflict every teenager in the history of humanity, girl or boy, believably switching from a roaring lioness about to take a swipe at some hapless prey, to a lovesick groupie with doe eyes and a dazzling smile. And on that point, in fact, I have to say that "dazzling" may be too weak an adjective.

And now the Plummer-James complementarity is easier to appreciate. Together, Cleopatra's impetuosity and Caesar's equanimity created both the story-driving tension and the character-developing contrast. Her initial fear of Romans invited Caesar's delight to play along. Cleopatra's youthfulness and femininity stirred Caesar's urges and his sense of propriety, the latter showing us his prudence in putting a quietus on the former. Her adoration of Caesar brought out the man's ego. And Cleopatra's ripening as a ruler satisfied Caesar's ambition on her behalf, while sharpening his awareness of his own mistakes. Plummer let his character's affection for the girl emerge slowly, piquing my curiosity about the extent to which Pygmalion may have informed the mentor-mentee relationship that he and James struck on stage.

By drawing a parallel between England and Rome, the Irishman Shaw wrote this play as an excoriation of British imperialism. Either the dramaturge, Robert Blacker, or the director, Des McAnuff, or both of them, chose to excise much of Shaw's political message for this production, an example being the chastising prologue by Ra. In effect, they abandoned the politics in favor of the human relationships, a decision that wasn't necessarily reprehensible, especially given the quality of the acting, as long as one doesn't expect the result to be vintage Shaw.

Along this line, I have to mention Steven Sutcliffe, who portrayed Britannus, Caesar's secretary. With a wink at stereotype, he played to the residual resentment that some Canadians feel toward what they perceive as the historical audacity of the British Empire. And Sutcliffe knew, of course, that Festival audiences comprise Americans in no small number. Although Shaw wrote the parochialism and Victorian prudishness into Britannus' words, Sutcliffe infused them with an amusing presumptuousness.

The rest of the cast, two of them in particular, also respected both the wittiness and the darkness in Shaw's script. As Rufio, Caesar's chief officer, Peter Donaldson was impatient but loyal, though certainly not above rolling his eyes at his boss' actions. And Diane D'Aquila gave us a rather creepy Ftatateeta, Cleopatra's nurse, making her behavior just bizarre enough to cast doubt on her mental health.