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A Stratford State of Mind

Stratford Shakespeare Festival's artistic director Des McAnuff discusses his production of Caesar and Cleopatra, starring Christopher Plummer and Nikki M. James. logo
Des McAnuff
(© Joseph Marzullo/WENN)
"Stratford is a point of destination for people who love theater, and particularly classical theater," says Des McAnuff, who is in his first season as artistic director at Canada's Stratford Shakespeare Festival. The Tony Award-winning director -- he won for Big River and The Who's Tommy and is currently represented on Broadway by Jersey Boys and will be directing the upcoming Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls -- has just tackled George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, starring Christopher Plummer and Nikki M. James in the title roles.

"I've known Chris for years, and we've looked for projects in the past that never quite happened. Stratford has been kind of his home base; he grew up here, and this is where he really formed his craft. No one knows this stage better than Christopher Plummer, so when he said he wanted to do this play, I wanted to step up and direct it," says McAnuff, who recently took some time out of his busy schedule to talk with TheaterMania.


THEATERMANIA: What appeals to you about the text of Caesar and Cleopatra?
DES McANUFF: These two characters -- two of the most formidable characters in history, really -- are so deliciously portrayed in unexpected ways. Caesar is a formidable leader, but at the same time, he has a childlike quality that makes him extremely charming and disarming. Cleopatra has this quite brilliant intellect, but she's only 16. It's astonishing to watch her grow throughout the course of the play, and not necessarily in the direction that Caesar wants her to grow. This is, of course, typical of Western ideas about the Middle East, isn't it? We go in with expectations that we can make everyone think what we think and that's not always the case, and in my opinion, shouldn't be the case. I would also say the play's about an occupation in the Middle East.

TM: So, are you doing it in modern dress?
DM: There are no tanks. The themes of the play are so pertinent that I think it would be trite and unnecessary. It just happens to speak to our times in an all too clear way. Caesar was there, and the reasons that they had sent troops to the Middle East was because Rome was desperately dependent on the grain from Egypt similarly to how we're desperately dependent on the oil that's coming from the Middle East. I think things have changed remarkably little in 2000 years.

TM: Can you talk about the dynamics between your lead actors?
DM: One of the great things about the relationship in the play is that it calls for a senior actor and an emerging actor. To play Cleopatra properly, you have to be young enough to be convincing as a teenager, and Nikki certainly has that quality. Chris, of course, you could argue is the finest actor of his generation, and certainly one of the greatest living actors. So, the relationship takes on a kind of tutorial quality, anyway. The younger actor has a lot to learn from Christopher Plummer, and Nikki has grown in leaps and bounds working with him. That's a joy to direct, because there's already truth there; it's not something that needs to be manufactured.

Christopher Plummer and Nikki M. James
in Caesar and Cleopatra
(© David Hou)
TM: Nikki M. James is also currently playing Juliet in your production of Romeo and Juliet at Stratford. Can you talk a little about the different approaches the two of you have made towards these two very different young women?
DM: The biggest difference really has to do with the fact that Romeo and Juliet is in verse, so it requires a different skill set. Obviously, Juliet feels herself largely powerless, while Cleopatra by the end of the play is learning how to wield power. But they're both kind of willful, spirited young women and have that in common.

TM: Since this is your first year as artistic director, what do you feel is the most personally satisfying contribution you've made so far?
DM: I shared responsibility with two other artistic directors going into this season, Marti Maraden and Don Shipley. [Ed. Note: Both resigned from their positions earlier this year.] So, my first real season as a solo artistic director will be next year. But what I'm very proud of is the beginnings of a very strong dramaturgical department. We'll be commissioning a series of major playwrights to do new works. I started as a Canadian playwright and composer, so I want Stratford to be a home for writers, and not just actors, directors, and designers. I don't think you can sustain serious work on the classics if you don't have writers in the halls, for the very simple reason that it's easy to forget that Shakespeare actually walked the earth, and if you have writers around, it's a lot easier to remember that.

TM: What do you like about working in Stratford?
DM: This is very much a theater town. The theater plays a huge role in the community, and that's unusual. I've certainly worked in places where the people in the town don't even know there's a theater there. And the other thing that makes this such a wonderful place is that audiences here are by and large well informed. They read the plays, they get the references. Stratford is the largest repertory theater in the world, and a very important cultural resource. There are people who are surprised that I would come here at this point of my career, when I perhaps have more options than I had when I was a young guy. But I just have to say, I think this place is important, and it's worth investing time and energy and my life into it at this stage, because I want to see it have a glorious future.


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