Unlike William Shakespeare in his play Julius Caesar, George Bernard Shaw did not write Caesar and Cleopatra to bury the Roman emperor, but to praise him.
The Irish dramatist was a great admirer of Caesar who he called the height of human achievement. He dismissed Shakespeare's 1599 tragedy as "a mess ... a travestying of a great man as a silly braggart," and penned his take on Caesar exactly 300 years later.
Winnipeg's ambitious Nomadic Players take on the daunting challenge of presenting Caesar and Cleopatra, a sand and sandal epic which includes settings in front of a Sphinx and in the royal palace of Alexandria. With an intimate space -- two rows of seats surrounding three sides of the playing area -- director Ray Strachan used necessity to fashion what he calls a truncated, 90-minute version, spotlighting mostly the fractious relationship of the title characters with at least a few grains of sand.
While the history being depicted is not well known to most contemporary viewers, Strachan and his game cast are able to immediately gain attention. First of all the sun god Ra appears and in the booming, commanding voice of William Jordan demands silence as he delivers his sermon directly to the audience of a near capacity of 50 people.
Then the principle characters appear at the Sphinx, neither corresponding with their image in popular culture. Caesar is grey-haired and middle-aged, with a hilarious inability to properly pronounce the name of royal nurse Ftatateeta. Cleopatra is no sultry Liz Taylor-like Queen of the Nile on her barge but a 16-year-old brat, immature, fearful and a fan of watching poisoned slaves wiggling.
The relationship quickly brings to mind one that Shaw perfects 14 years later in Pygmalion, in which Henry Higgins transforms a Cockney flower girl into a proper lady. In Caesar and Cleopatra, the selfish, teen queen grows up under the tutelage of the former, a wise, tolerant father figure.
Ever the educator/entertainer, Shaw offers a lesson about war and power but with a purposeful comedic touch emphasized by Strachan. The running joke about Caesar butchering the name Ftatateeta stands beside his sober reflection, "I always disliked the idea of dying, I'd rather be killed."
The traction of this ShawFest production doesn't always bite when the story wanders away from the master-pupil exchanges. Kevin Anderson's Caesar is very watchable as the patient teacher who is unusually intrigued by his young charge no matter how much she laughs at his bald spot. Anderson subtly communicates the emperor's control, which he loses momentarily when he pulls Cleopatra's usurping brother Ptolemy off the throne by his ear.
As Cleopatra, Natashia Durand is the only character in the play who changes, from a spoiled wild child to a cunning queen who learns how to wield power. Durand charms as she takes liberties with Caesar's male ego.
Among the supporting cast Brenda McLean stands out as Ftatateeta, a schemer who doesn't appreciate the names she is called. Jeff Strome, Tobias Hughes, Ivan Henwood and Jordan competently orbit the central pair.
Shaw ends with Caesar promising to send Cleopatra a soldier with muscles, who turns out to be Mark Anthony, as he sets sail for Rome and his date with destiny with someone who does want to bury him.
Caesar and Cleopatra
To Saturday at 320-70 Albert Street
Three stars out of five