Shakespeare lovers who travel to Staunton, Virginia, are now being treated to a veritable Roman Holiday!
The unfailingly excellent Blackfriars Playhouse is currently performing three plays with ancient Roman themes: “Julius Caesar,” “Antony and Cleopatra” and “Caesar and Cleopatra.”
Audiences may do a double-take at “Caesar and Cleopatra,” which was written by George Bernard Shaw rather than Shakespeare. As it is rarely performed, we have chosen this Shaw work among the Roman offerings for review.
“Caesar and Cleopatra” is, first of all, thoroughly imbued with the wonderful wit of Shaw. In an early scene, when Julius Caesar first meets Cleopatra at the Sphinx, the whimsical and somewhat naive Cleopatra of this uniquely Shavian version is unaware of his identity:
Cleopatra: You must not be disrespectful to me, or the Sphinx will let the Romans eat you. Come up. It is quite cozy here…the Romans are coming to eat us all. You are a funny old gentleman. I like you.
Caesar: I was saying my prayers to the great Sphinx.
Cleopatra: But this isn’t the great Sphinx. This is only a dear little kitten of the Sphinx. Why, the great Sphinx is so big that it has a temple between its paws. This is my pet Sphinx.
Indeed, parts of this production of the play border on the slapstick – an effective means to prevent a dialogue-driven play replete with philosophical ideas from becoming too heavy.
At times, the actors prowl across the stage like Cleopatra’s cats. Similarly, the entire cast waves its hands every time the Nile River is mentioned, and much other physical humor is present, including Cleopatra chasing her brother off the throne in a one-sided pillow fight. Such strategies work brilliantly at making what could be a very static play into an enjoyable night at the theatre.
The tone of the play, however, eventually becomes more serious. Caesar and Cleopatra begin to know each other better, and Cleopatra gains experience and becomes more queen-like and commanding.
Later in the play, there is a violent and bloody scene which is rendered all the more moving because of the earlier light-heartedness of the production.
That is consistent with Shaw’s intent to focus the play not on private love, but public power and politics. At the time the play was written, England, near the height of its imperial influence, in effect ruled Egypt. Indeed, perhaps the tone of the play, swinging back and forth between serious and comic, is remarkably relevant for our own current election-cycle time, as political news veers unpredictably from comic to tragic and back again.
Director Eric Tucker balances the comedic and somber moments well throughout the play, and Cleopatra actress Constance Swain is excellent in delivering Shaw’s humorous as well as serious lines with natural speech and modern sensibility.
David Anthony Lewis is wonderfully effective as an imperious but very human Julius Caesar, as when Caesar shrugs it off as he hears the Great Library at Alexandria is burning down.
“I am an author myself,” Caesar says, “and I tell you it is better that the Egyptians should live their lives than dream them away with the help of books.” Indeed, Lewis’ performance is such that audiences might want to see him reprise the role in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” running concurrently at Blackfriars.
Costumes range from Hollywood Egyptian for Cleopatra to a 1800s British colonialist suit for Caesar to 1900s military khakis for the army.
Anachronisms abound, such as a slow-motion action sequence with the music of the modern media work “Sherlock” in the background. Of course, there are also non-historical moments to the play as Shaw wrote it, so this technique is far from out of place.
There are many problematic features to any staging of “Caesar and Cleopatra,” not the least of which is Shaw’s suggested use for extensive and epic props in stage notes: “Caesar’s galley (is to be) so gorgeously decorated that it seems to be rigged with flowers…the broad steps of the gate, crowded with Cleopatra’s ladies, all in their gayest attire, are like a flower garden.”
Public relations manager Sky Wilson points out that such challenges are particularly difficult for a theatre such as Blackfriars Playhouse, which is a recreation of an Elizabethan-era theatre and hence uses few to no props. Happily, this production navigates the gap between the opulence of Shaw’s vision and the traditional sparseness of Shakespearean productions at this venue in a pleasing way successfully.
The current American Shakespeare Center presentation of Caesar and Cleopatra is a welcome opportunity to see a Shaw play rarely performed in America, and produced in a fashion which appeals to contemporary tastes – all part of the Roman Holiday offerings through November at the Blackfriars Playhouse.
Summer 2020 will shift the theme to Venetian Holiday, with three Venice-themed dramas: “Othello,” “The Merchant of Venice” and – again – a non-Shakespearean piece rarely performed: Ben Jonson’s “Volpone.”