The Stratford Shakespeare Festival has come up with a show that is a boon to the North American theatre lover. Director Des McAnuff (also the Festival’s artistic director) has parlayed his considerable knowledge of Broadway and built his production team with veterans of the American scene (most of whom have plied their craft on the Great White Way) and Stratford newcomers (set designer Robert Brill, costume designer Paul Tazewell, composer Rick Fox, dramaturge Robert Blacker, fight director Steve Rankin, movement Lisa Shriver and aerial effects designer Paul Rubin).
For Canadians, the resulting art-by-spectacle saves the annoyance of long line-ups at border crossings, over-priced gas and a dollar still in search of its value. For U.S. visitors, they may well have to pinch themselves and wonder if they are above the 49th parallel as the glittering production begins with the crossed-arm payoff to a long-standing sight gag (no anthem here, which would have been a dead giveaway).
So let’s just say it: this production of George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra is easily the most entertaining show of the 2008 season and may well be the funniest staging ever.
Gluing it all together (and strongly suggested as his showpiece) is Christopher Plummer—first seen here fifty-two years ago—as the multilayered Julius Caesar. The near-octogenarian belies his age with a fast-paced performance that made the most of the numerous “old” jokes but also focussed tightly when delivering Shaw’s numerous zingers. (“My friend: taxes are the chief business of a conqueror of the world.”) Plummer seems to be having the time of his life, revelling in the respect and adoration that is obvious from both sides of the footlights.
His interactions with Peter Donaldson as Rufio (Caesar’s confidante and protector) are gems; the broadly played banter with the incredibly named Ftatateeta (Diane D’Aqila devours the part with ease) comes close to farce (morphing the moniker into titty), but filled the Festival Theatre with riots of infectious laughter. As the ever-so-young Cleopatra, Nikki M. James makes the most of appearing with a legend and provides a much more spontaneous character than her Juliet even if the decibel range occasionally worries the crystal.
Younger-still sibling Ptolemy clings to the Egyptian throne like it’s a security blanket, all the while taking his decrees from Pothinus. With a charming wee belly of baby fat, Paul Dunn is a most convincing 10-year-old; as his wily guardian, Timothy D. Stickney rules once-removed—stoked by a view to the future—with determined skill.
As if between performances of Spamalot, Steven Sutcliffe lights up the stage and attacks the funny bone to the point of tears-in-your-eyes yuks in his portrayal of Britannus—Caesar’s British secretary, who affords Shaw the opportunity to pillory one of his favourite targets. (“Caesar: I am a man and a Briton, not a fish. I must have a boat. I cannot swim.”)
To keep the humour flowing even after a beheaded enemy (Pompey) is offered to the brilliant general as a gift and the importance of killing enemies—so that you’ll “never have to fight them again”—is debated, the importance of art is championed in the gay-friendly personage of Apollodorus (Gordon S. Miller) and his long-suffering hauler of Persian rugs, Major-Domo (Jesse Aaron Dwyre). The physical gag of hiding Cleopatra in one of the precious floor coverings then spiriting her away (cue the overhead crane) adds much to the merriment and larger-than-Sphinx set.
Totally out of place are the gratuitous bare breasts put on offer by Cleopatra’s bathing beauties after the interval; a cheap sense of pack-‘em-in titillation seemes at odds with the collection’s title, Three Plays for Puritans, from which this script is taken.
In the spirit of The Lion King, the settings were appropriately large (although Plummer had trouble in his first scene with a Sphinx’s paw that wouldn’t stay put) and golden (the ship that appears to ferry Caesar back to Rome and his eventual doom is a gleaming marvel of simplicity and detail—a bunch of real grapes amongst the banquet bounty another deft touch).
All of the costumes (from Cleopatra’s sumptuous array of palace-wear to the marvellously masked, pitch-blackened skin of the silent Egyptian slaves—seen twice, to the mirror-finish sheen of the stage) keep the eye happily engaged even as Caesar works through his military crises with a great sense of verve and apparent lust for justice.
The final “Hail Caesar”—as much for Plummer as the famed warrior—brought the capacity crowd to its cheering feet, delighted to have witnessed a performance that, no doubt, would have mightily surprised its creator. JWR