Caesar and Cleopatra

George Bernard Shaw
Stratford Festival
Stratford Festival Theatre, Ontario

Christopher Plummer as Caesar and Nikki M James as Cleopatra Credit: David Hou
Christopher Plummer as Caesar Credit: David Hou
Nikki M James as Cleopatra Credit: David Hou

Stratford is justifiably proud of its connection with distinguished veteran Christopher Plummer so it follows up his appearance as Prospero from 2010 with an opportunity to view his portrayal of an equally wry character in Julius Caesar in a production recorded two years before.

The quality and ambition of this staging, directed by the theatre’s Artistic Director of the time, Des McAnuff, becomes apparent in the opening scenes, which cleverly convey the live audience to pre-Christian Egypt, complete with a towering, if impressionistic, Sphinx.

Robert Brill’s set is indisputably magisterial and it is matched by the colourful costumes designed by Paul Tazewell, making the Romans seem truly warlike, while Nikki M James as the 16-year-old Egyptian queen gets a dazzling ensemble.

The pleasure of this play lies in the verbal interplay between the gauche but highly intelligent young queen and a divine invading emperor old enough to be her grandfather but still well able to become an admired, if ironic, role model, especially having been imbued with so much Shavian wisdom and blarney.

There is more to the young woman than initially meets the eye, at which point she appears immature, especially while offering a vision of the future as she gushes over the physical beauty of Mark Antony. Those interested in that tale, though, will need to transfer their affiliations from Shaw to Shakespeare.

While the witty repartee rarely lets up, serious political issues abound, with wars as likely to be internecine as between the two states. The factional in-fighting is spiced up by the discovery that not only are there disputes on the Roman side but Cleopatra is challenging Paul Dunn as her weak-willed younger brother and future husband Ptolemy for control over the Egyptian empire.

While the camera inevitably spends much of its time focused on the leading duo, this production is strongly cast from top to bottom. Many of the actors make the most of their moment in the limelight. Those that are particularly prominent include Steven Sutcliffe as a particularly prissy, British Britannus, Diane D’Aquila portraying the Queen’s fiery, self-possessed nurse and Gordon S Miller in the role of posturing Apollodorus, a patrician Sicilian with great depth of vision and the practical skills to fulfil even the most demanding of challenges.

Ultimately, though, this is a showcase for the diverse acting skills of Christopher Plummer and Nikki M James and both rise to the occasion with aplomb.

If you were unable to catch the free stream, which ended at lunchtime on 12 December, a vast selection of top-quality Stratford Productions is available on subscription at the special introductory price of Can$10 a month. Until just before Christmas, new videos are available free every Thursday for 36 hours starting at 11:30PM London time.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher