Monday, February 02, 2009

Caesar and Cleopatra

A couple of weeks ago, P-Doug asked me if I'd care to join him in taking in Caesar and Cleopatra at one of the Cineplex theatres in town. Cineplex was showing the play on select screens across Canada on Jan. 31st. I'd never seen a play by George Bernard Shaw, and I'm a fan of most things Roman, so I told him to count me in.

The performance was recorded, before a live audience, at the Stratford Festival last fall (a bit ironic because there's also a Shaw Festival here in Ontario as well). In the central roles were famed thespian Christopher Plummer, and newcomer Nikki M. James. She was playing Juliet in Romeo and Juliet at the same time, sometimes on the same day, which blows my mind.

The theatre we sat in was packed. There couldn't have been an empty seat. It was only the performance's due, of course. I tend to be kind of cynical about our society but I felt proud while I sat there and took in what's really fine and enduring about Western civilization. We should be remembered for works like this, not for things like Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan. Ah, there I go again... :)

It was thoroughly enjoyable. It took about two and a half hours to show, including a 20-minute intermission, but it didn't feel anything like that long. It was wonderful to see Plummer as Caesar. I'm used to seeing him portrayed as haughty, aristocratic, and asking for what happened to him on the Ides. Shaw's Caesar is more a good-natured man who has come to accept he has this strange, great destiny, and sort of goes with the flow. It's a new way of seeing the man, though I imagine it's overly generous to the true nature of the man. A guy's friends don't tend to inflict two dozen-plus stab wounds to him on the floor of the Senate if he's a regular chuckle-buckets. :) But it was a Caesar I liked.

It was a Caesar Cleopatra liked, too, though historically she apparently liked the real fellow pretty much as well (they had a son together, a fact overlooked in the play — along with the nature of a relationship as gives rise to progeny). But in this telling, Caesar is an old man, and Cleopatra little more than a girl, and a rather foolish and credulous one at that; initially fearful of being eaten by Romans whom she pictures as something akin to one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people eaters. After some initial teasing, Caesar takes her under his wing and prepares her to be a queen indeed. Cleopatra takes to Caesar, but she makes no bones about her real love: the Roman called Mark Antony. The rest is history.

I was impressed with the production, and especially the performances. P-Doug remarked that it's rare for someone as young as James to be able to share a stage with someone like Plummer, but she really was an apt choice to play opposite him. In fact, all the principals were striking and engaging. I'm looking forward to seeing it again when BRAVO! shows it this spring on television... though seeing it on TV won't hold a candle to the larger-than-life aspect of the silver screen.

I think I'll go out by saying the thing I got the biggest kick out of was the figure of Britannus, a Romanized Celt from Britain who serves as one of Caesar's aides-de-camp. For much of the play, his part consists of finding fault with, or taking offense at, the ways of other nations. Caesar repeatedly teases him for it, or apologizes to others for Britannus's remarks. He is frequently referred to as being "from the Islands", the end of the world, and being subject to the conceit that his ways are the only proper and civilized ways. This was clearly Shaw, who was an Irishman by birth, poking gentle fun at the mores and opinions of the British at the end of the Victorian Age. Today one might be tempted to script a similar stuffed tunic and style him Americus... ;)

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