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Caesar and Cleopatra
Festival Theatre
By Bernard Shaw, 1898
Directed by Christopher Newton

Play summary | Globe and Mail review

From the program:

Caesar and Cleopatra, Shaw's ninth play, represents a watershed in his career. Shaw's Caesar was the first of his many "supermen" - people of extraordinary ability or ambition who seem marked to lead humankind to a higher plane of evolution. This Caesar is not at all like the self-serving tyrant that Shakespeare depicted in his play Julius Caesar - in fact, many critics consider this Caesar a portrait of Shaw made heroic. Similarly, this Cleopatra is very different from the one in Antony and Cleopatra: Shakespeare's Cleopatra was a mature woman whose queenly gifts were subverted by her passionate love for Antony, while Shaw's is just a slip of a girl who begins learning statecraft from the ancient world's master politician. And while the historical Cleopatra was probably 21 when she met Caesar and had a son by him, in Shaw's play there is no hint of a sexual liaison between the two.

Shaw considered Caesar and Cleopatra a chronicle play that was faithful to the historical personalities involved. His source was the German historian Theodor Mommsen's History of Rome, published in the 1850s and translated into English in 1870. Mommsen's work was notable for the contemporary feel it gave to Roman life. As Shaw's biographer Michael Holroyd explains: "The Mommsenite view of Caesar is of a democrat and republican whose impulse towards social reform opened up overseas possessions and remodelled the political structure of Rome so that it provided a material foundation for modern civilization. In Mommsen's hagiographic vision of 'the entire and perfect man' Shaw found what he wanted for his own conception of the hero." Shaw acknowledged that "Mommsen had conceived Caesar as I wished to present him," and elsewhere wrote, "I stuck nearly as closely to him as Shakespeare did to Plutarch or Holinshed."

Globe and Mail review:

Hail a virile, updated Caesar
Thursday, May 23, 2002 - Print Edition, Page R3

Rating: ***

On the infrequent occasions when a theatre has revived Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, critics have complained that the relationship between a patronizing 50-year-old Caesar and a kittenish 16-year-old Cleopatra isn't much of a romance. Take a look at the pictures of previous productions in the Shaw Festival's program for its current revival and you see exactly what they mean: all those winsome young creatures wrapping themselves around paunchy bald men in nightgowns and laurel wreaths.

But as artistic director Christopher Newton opens the Shaw's 41st season, he and designer William Schmuck have swept that problem off the table. The director has cast the virile Jim Mezon as Caesar and, in a production set not in ancient Egypt but during the First World War, Schmuck has dressed him à la Indiana Jones. When he does take off the adventurer's hat, he's bald all right, but it's the Kojak look. Many a female heart more experienced than the virgin Cleopatra's is going to be set aflutter by this sexy update of the Roman general.

Yes, romance is all very plausible here; it's the politics of the play that remain intractable despite, or perhaps because of, the 20th-century setting. Of course, Shaw was writing for his contemporaries and couched his encounter between the conquering Caesar and the pretender to the throne of a divided Egypt in modern speech full of purposeful anachronisms. The play was written in 1898 but not performed until 1906 and moving the action into the First World War is easy; Newton and Schmuck do it with wit and verve.

The Romans are the British army attempting to rule a supposedly independent Egypt; the royal guardian Pothinus (Neil Barclay) is a functionary in a fez and when he tries to push his ward on to the throne, the young Ptolemy is shown wearing chinos and desert boots underneath the ancient regalia. Britannus (Norman Browning), the slave taken from that far-off island where they paint themselves blue, is a London banker in a navy suit while Caesar's lieutenant, Rufio (Guy Bannerman), is a tough little Scot in a kilt. Cleopatra's antique dealer Apollodorus is a fawning figure right out of Noel Coward, perfectly created by Patrick R. Brown, while Lucius Septimius, the Roman who has gone over to the Egyptian side, is costumed as Lawrence of Arabia. In the hands of Barclay, Browning, Bannerman and Brown, what you get is very nicely executed comedy. Meanwhile, Mezon inflates the wise and benign Caesar with enough humour to make him charming instead of smug.

Still, the comedy is not the play's point and as its political plot develops -- Caesar tries to groom Cleopatra as a modern monarch but she's got some rather prehistoric ideas about power -- its actual theme becomes increasingly distasteful. Caesar is one of Shaw's superman figures, carrying with him to Egypt a futuristic vision of a society free of civil strife and bloody vengeance, a place of law and order. Newton's decision to push him forward into Shaw's own age is perfectly apt -- Caesar is Mr. Pax Britannicus himself -- but also dangerous. As Caesar argues for a form of benign despotism that includes dispatching a murderer without a trial, a postcolonial audience is going to have a hard time believing that any form of imperialism is a good thing.

It may also weary of Caroline Cave's smitten schoolgirl, charmingly energetic though she may be. The better female role belongs to her servant Ftatateeta, played very effectively by Sarah Orenstein with an exotic accent and lots of menace. Her performance carefully balances the character between the comedy and the political thriller in the play. She is the only counterweight to the cloying sexism of Cleopatra's relationship with Caesar, whose political stance also goes unchallenged. Shaw often makes you examine your beliefs by putting unpalatable opinions in honeyed mouths, but here all sympathy goes to the Roman who has no intellectual match in a Cleopatra by turns impetuous and fawning.

Just where is it written that the Queen of the Nile was an unreliable creature of passion rather than a cunning ruler (as some historians believe)? In Shakespeare, actually: Shaw's play is something of a prelude to both Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. In writing his piece, he rebutted Shakespeare's darker view of Caesar to replace him with a demi-god, and has only given us a younger version of a faulty Cleopatra. In his 23 years at the festival, Newton, who will retire at the end of this season, has come to argue that Shaw is the greatest playwright in the language after Shakespeare; it's disappointing not to see the artistic director bow out with a more convincing example.
Caesar and Cleopatra runs to Oct. 27 at the Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. For information call: 1-800-511-7429.

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