Shaw's 1898 prequel to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is a stylized debate between the aging Roman Caesar and the teenaged Queen of the Nile, he tutoring her in royal conduct, with a subtext of Christopher Plummer's stagecraft tutelage of a rising star. Plummer's superb performance holds the center, a clash of worlds - Rome and Alexandria - and a clash of words between conqueror and conquered, while Cleopatra revolves and grows from giggling girl to slinking minx to royal tigress to illustrious Queen.
Directed by Des McAnuff. Set by Robert Brill. Costumes by Paul Tazewell. Lights by Robert Thomson. Music by Rick Fox. Sound by Jim Neil.
Christopher Plummer (Caesar), Nikki M. James (Cleopatra), Diane D'Aquila (Ftatateeta), Paul Dunn (Ptolemy), Timothy D. Stickney (Pothinus), Peter Donaldson (Rufio), Steven Sutcliffe (Britannus), John Vickery (Lucius Septimius), Gordon S. Miller (Apollodorus), Wayne Best (Belzanor).
Christopher Plummer, at 78 years of age, provides a charismatic core for Stratford Festival's Caesar and Cleopatra. His silver-haired Caesar exudes eloquence and dignity, a leader of the world and the conqueror of Egypt, seeking a solemn and solitary moment near dawn. The production begins with a trumpet fanfare and Plummer's Caesar approaching the stoic Sphinx, its giant paws dominating downstage with part of its slyly smiling face visible above upstage. Caesar is respectful and impressed - "hail, Sphinx!" - but not awestruck ("I conquer, and you endure"), and he maintains this same sympathetic tone with the Egyptians, and especially Cleopatra. The play, an insightful examination of Caesar's tutelage of the teenaged Cleopatra, is presented in debate-like dialogues, with Caesar guiding their relationship from a flirtation and a dalliance to a deep and respectful friendship, and ultimately - to the pragmatic Roman's credit - a strong political alliance.
Nikki M. James co-stars as Cleopatra, and she has much more success with this portrayal than with her naïve schoolgirl Juliet in Romeo and Juliet on the same stage, although the characters share the same quality of a teenager forced to mature quickly into a young woman. James' Cleopatra begins the production as a distraught young girl of noble blood, seeking to dethrone her mousy brother, and she joins Caesar - for similar personal reasons - at the paws of the Sphinx late one night. She wears a clinging crimson gown - the first in a series of elaborate and complimentary costumes: sometimes regal, usually quite sexy, always flamboyant - and she fails to identify or even notice the world-class leadership of the Roman general - "old gentleman: don't run away" - pricking him with a pin from her long black hair to prove he is not asleep and dreaming. Their act one interaction, anchored by the dry and wry Plummer, is at once a sexual flirtation and an under-the-surface political argument, and they sit upon opposing paws of the looming Sphinx. James' Cleopatra displays a charming but callow schoolgirl mentality - "climb up here, quickly; or the Romans will come and eat you" that the astute Caesar immediately identifies: "You are a silly little girl."
Des McAnuff directs Caesar and Cleopatra with visual flair, the golden Sphinx towering upstage, the Romans clad in togas and sandals (Caesar with his omnipresent wreath), and the Egyptians in flowing gold and black. In a striking stage picture, a series of Egyptian statues, seemingly life-sized golden idols, transform into living men - with hands in a disapproving gesture on their hips - who slowly sink into the stage and disappear. McAnuff wisely focuses on the star power of Plummer, whose droll humanist Caesar maneuvers Cleopatra into allying with him while continuing a bemused flirtation. Plummer's Caesar provides Cleopatra with instruction for more queenly behavior, especially with Ftatateeta - the pronunciation of the servant woman's name a show-long running joke: totateeta, teetatora - and observes his success as James' Cleopatra becomes accustomed to imperious commands: she tentatively tells her servant to obey ("on your knees, woman"), but later threatens to throw Ftatateeta into the Nile "to poison the poor crocodiles," and at one point strikes her across the face for insubordinate remarks. She flings herself at the stately Caesar: "I love you for making me a queen." Plummer engagingly flirts with the ravishing Cleopatra - "Oh, my wrinkles, my wrinkles! And my child's heart!" - but when the stage trembles with the sound of the approaching legions of Roman soldiers, he leads her by torchlight to the palace. Pointedly, when the soldiers pound their chests in salute to Plummer's general, shouting "Hail Caesar!" loud enough to startle the confused Cleopatra, James makes her realization as he sits in the Egyptian throne, and she just about leaps into his lap.
Due to the fifty-years-plus difference in the age of the performers, McAnuff downplays the sexual aspects of the dalliance (although historically Cleopatra bore Caesar a child). The flirtation is primarily verbal, punchy and quick with Shavian wit, with some subtle body language on Plummer's part and more than a little impertinent slinking by James. Shaw's play is also a political drama, and McAnuff adeptly portrays the Egyptian power struggle, with Cleopatra's pale-skinned ten-year-old brother being coached by a trio of dark-skinned puppeteer chancellors. Ptolemy squirms uncomfortably within the council chamber, trying but failing to memorize his speech, then panicking when the chamber is swarmed by his sister and a crew of helmeted Roman soldiers carrying swords and shields. James' Cleopatra displays her growing sense of command as she seizes Ptolemy by the ear, yanks him bodily from the throne - "you little cry-baby" - and takes the seat herself. She emerges later - in her silken white gown with blue fringe and an elaborate gold collar - but only to kneel at Caesar's side.
Plummer's cerebral Caesar brims with bitter wisdom - "taxes are the chief business of a conqueror of the world" and "murder shall breed murder" - he often shares with his audience, and he proves a sly warrior, burning boats to divert the Egyptians so he can seize the higher ground of the lighthouse, as well as a self-aware old man: "every dog has his day; and I have had mine." The character is akin to Prospero in The Tempest and Plummer's performance is remarkable in his alternations between self-reflective poignancy and witty humor, all with a regal bearing and a perfectly modulated delivery. His exchanges with his "shield" Rufio provide both humor - Rufio remarks upon Caesar's use of his birthday as a special day for everyone that "we had seven of them in ten months last year" - and there are several references to upcoming events in Julius Caesar, including Caesar's ominous remark, "I have always disliked the idea of dying; I had rather be killed." When Caesar advises Cleopatra to take the throne offered to her, Rufio wryly tells him: "follow your own advice when we return to Rome, Caesar." Shaw's play even winks at Antony and Cleopatra, with James' Cleopatra already smitten - "Mark Antony! What a beautiful name!" - and Plummer's Caesar a little jealous and even more self-conscious of his hair: "That is why you wear the wreath!" she exclaims.
Plummer's Caesar, remarkable in contradictions and ambiguities as well as depth and wit, exhibits disgust with his noble enemy's assassin ("begone: you fill me with horror") and clemency toward the wayward Egyptians. When promised a document that would expose his enemies, he refuses it: "am I a bull dog, to seek quarrels merely to shew how stubborn my jaws are?" The famous Roman pragmatism plays marvelously for humor, both Caesar and Rufio disgusted by "that building next door...the theatre." And Caesar shows disregard ("is that all?") when told the library is in flames: "It is better that the Egyptians live their lives than dream them away with the help of books."
When a rolled-up Persian carpet arrives as a gift, the soldiers sense movement ("it is a serpent!") and draw their swords, but James' Cleopatra rolls out, lithe and sexy in a shimmering gold lame gown that is only two strips of material, a small front and a small back, so James is all but naked on her sides. The Romans respond with typical aplomb - "this is a pretty little snake" - but the slinking minx is becoming increasingly queenly and earning respect. When Pothinus takes note of the transformation within her - "what they tell me is true. You are changed" - James' Cleopatra responds with a Roman-like witty remark ("do you speak with Caesar every day for six months: and you will be changed") and an astonishingly Caesar-like reflection ("this is not happiness; but it is greatness") that dramatically resonates, revelatory of the changes within the young princess. Rufio's earlier denigrations - "this piece of goods" or "you filthy little Egyptian rat" - not only seem misguided, but a negative indicator of the character's perception, as opposed to Caesar's. James' Cleopatra has journeyed far from the giggling or frightened schoolgirl by the Sphinx, now a reflective and insightful young woman - "Caesar loves no one" - preparing for the throne.
McAnuff stages the end of Shaw's third act with the interval-signaling escape from the lighthouse, further illustrating the characters and entertaining the audience with exciting humor. When the artist Apollodorus leaps off upstage to save himself, Britannus of course refuses to follow ("I am a man and a Briton, not a fish") but Plummer's Caesar seizes the opportunity to have some fun, flying from the stage with a laugh and limbs akimbo; and when Cleopatra hesitates, Rufio tosses her in the air, then follows with a shrug of chagrin.
McAnuff's second half opens with the striking image of Cleopatra's inner chamber, bare-breasted women lounging in a hot tub pool while the Queen herself - becoming the temperamental tigress - prowls nearby, amid pillows, a lyre and a cushioned bench. Although Cleopatra still pursues Caesar's heart, longing to play the harp because he loves music so well, the ship arrives to bring Caesar back to Rome, staged by McAnuff with the huge golden bow moving in from upstage in a Roman mirror image to the Egyptian Sphinx.
Plummer's Caesar makes his farewell to Egypt, and again like The Tempest, one feels as though the fond goodbyes emerge from Plummer himself, and as if his character's tutelage of the Queen of the Nile was also a lesson in stagecraft from Plummer to James. The characters - and performers - also provide interesting echoes from Shaw's own Pygmalion, with Henry Higgins fashioning his regal lady from cockney Eliza Doolittle. When James' Cleopatra emerges for the final farewell - now clad in a simple and unornamented black gown - she seems mature and womanly as well as gracefully beautiful, and her transformation seems to be a credit to both Caesar and Plummer. After another bungling of Ftatateeta's name, Cleopatra giggles, and Plummer's Caesar kisses her tenderly on the forehead, his words achingly emotional: "I do not think we shall meet again." The moment provides an appropriately poignant conclusion for this deeply resonant, skillfully acted production.