AISLE SAY Stratford, Ontario


by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Des McAnuff
Starring Christopher Plummer and Nikki M. James
Plays through November 8   

Reviewed by Robin Breon

Clearly displeased with the shoddy hack work that William Shakespeare turned in on Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra, Bernard Shaw set out to right the wrong in 1898 when he came forward with his own version of the story (or more correctly the back-story) for his play, Caesar and Cleopatra. If Shakespeare could put words into the mouths of these iconic historic figures, so too could Shaw. The history that ensues has less to do with the final years of the Ptolemaic Dynasty and more to do with Shaw's own thoughts on war, peace and the conquest of empire. And with his wry sense of humor he portrayed the whole thing as a kind of cynical jokeŅon the world.

Since this late season opener at the Stratford Festival has already received rave reviews (with the buzz of a Broadway transfer already wafting over the parks and green spaces of this small Ontario town), let's get right to the heart of it.

The production, directed by Des McAnuff, once again shows the shrewd sense of showmanship and pacing exhibited by a director who knows what the audience wants and needs. No dillydallying with the opening scene –the first voice we hear, the first person we see is Christopher Plummer as Julius Caesar with his famous salutation to the Sphinx.  

In the next moment we are introduced to Cleopatra, a quavering young girl who is still learning how to be a woman, much less a queen. Nikki M. James as Cleopatra is at once fetching, demanding, feisty, fearful, immature, inquisitive, flippant and at times downright funny. She is the perfect juxtaposition to the aging, wry and cynical Caesar that Plummer plays with the brilliance and insight that only a lifetime devoted to the theatre can bring.

Watching Mr. Plummer ply his craft, one realizes (young actors pay attention here) that theatre is really where it's at with regard to the art of acting and all of that film and television stuff is fine for the money a day job can bring but it will never take you into the heart and soul of the art form. Many actors achieve commercial success, fewer can be called artists. Christopher Plummer is one of the great artists of our time.

In referring to the late William Hutt, another pillar of the Stratford Festival who passed away last year, Plummer once remarked in an interview: "No one could ever underplay Bill Hutt." Apparently today no one can under play Christopher Plummer. With all of the ballyhooing in and around the Egyptian court; Cleopatra's struggle against her brother Ptolemy (Paul Dunn plays the whining, spoiled brat with annoying appeal); combined with the aggressive interventions of her nurse and governess, Ftatatetta (Diane D'Aquila is a malevolent delight) not to mention the various lieutenants, officers, and counselors who attend  on CaesarŅhalf the time all Plummer has to do is raise an eyebrow, shrug a shoulder, wink an eye or invoke a quizzical double take to elicit huge and knowing response from us in the audience who feel like we're being let in on the joke with Caesar and what a whacky sense of humor this Roman general had. Who knew?

But enough on Mr. Plummer, he'll never develop any character if I go on further.

Accolades are equally deserved by Timothy D. Stickney, David Collins, and Roy Lewis as Pothinus, Theodotus, and Achillas respectively representing the rivaling court of Ptolemy. Peter Donaldson is steadfast and earnest in the role of Rufio, Caesar's chief officer while Steven Sutcliffe is appropriately stiff in his upper lip as Britanus, representing the British Home Office of his day.

Robert Brill's illuminated set design gives insight into why this whole period initated the Egyptomania of its day back in Rome while Paul Tazewell's costumes (and in one scene lack of costumes) were always captivating.

The ethnographic optics of the production is strongly multiracial in its approach and I'll leave it to the anthropologists to determine the actual hue of Cleopatra's skin. I personally found it delightful to see a very young and beautiful black woman finally being given the opportunity to play the title role with people of color also being used in other major roles. Ironically this comes at a time when the Shaw Festival itself (down the road in Niagara-on-the-Lake) is being accused of limiting opportunities for actors of color to only minor, servant type roles. Shaw would have loved the debate I'm sure.

Hard line Shavians need not fear that that this production is only melodrama and cheap laughs. The humor comes directly out of the clever structure of the play that Shaw devised and the pathos is drawn from the universal understanding that the world today is not all that different from the ancients. The politicians decry that war is an honorable enterprize and that the self-sacrifice of soldiers is always brave, noble and just. But don't worry Ņ the tragedy and sorrow of all this only sets in on the drive home.

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