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1947; Caesar and Cleopatra


Miss Julia Mansell, a professional actress and adjudicator for the British Drama League, who was prevented by illness from judging the School's production of Caesar and Cleopatra, at the Walthamstow Drama Festival, was kind enough to attend the final performance at the School. We would like here to record our sincere thanks to Miss Mansell for attending this performance at a time when her professional duties were very heavy, and when, in addition, she was in the middle of preparations for a journey to the Continent.
To both producers and cast Miss Mansell gave some very useful advice and criticism.
The settings Miss Mansell described as both beautiful and clever, and for the costumes, all of which were hired, except for Cleopatra's dresses in the first and second acts and in the final scene, she reserved the word " superb."
Considerable praise was also given to the lighting; but here the criticism was made that the Sphinx scene was underlit.
Of the speaking of the lines, Miss Mansell remarked that there were moments of inaudibility, particularly in the Sphinx and Boudoir scenes, and that certain characters were at times guilty of "gabbling."
From a large cast some members were picked out for special commendation. Bastin was praised for the acting ability which he displayed in the part of Rufio, and of Chaplin, in the role of Caesar, it was said that he sustained excellently a long and difficult part. In addition, particular praise was given to Buck as Cleopatra, Gunton as Lucius Septimius, Hellman as Pothinus, and Collins as Britannus.
Miss Mansell considered that the choice of play was ambitious, but went on to add that the production had not only succeeded, but had been "put over magnificently." She commented on the excellent pace
which had been maintained, and remarked that the whole play showed that much work had been done to excellent effect.
Concluding her remarks to cast and producers, Miss Mansell made a strong plea for continued ambition in future productions, hoping particularly that the Dramatic Society would embark next on the production of Shakespeare. Her final words were : "Let me implore you always to be ambitious."
It is not intended to debate here the wisdom of the choice of Caesar and Cleopatra to be this year's School play. Let it suffice to say that there has been much comment, favourable and otherwise, and all awaited the performance with ill-concealed cynicism or enthusiasm, according to their convictions. From the beginning much reshuffling of the cast was necessitated and the part of Caesar was finally given to B.G.Chaplin, a discovery from the Christmas one-act plays.
The production at the School was criticised because it lacked "atmosphere," but Shaw says in his notes to Caesar and Cleopatra;
"The only way to write a play which shall convey to the general public an impression of antiquity is to make the characters speak blank verse and abstain from reference to steam, telegraphy or any of the material conditions of their existence."
Should producers of the play, with this comment in mind, strive after atmosphere when Shaw himself is very little concerned with it? On the stage this would be exceedingly difficult to achieve, and Messrs.
Brobyn and Starbuck, although the scenery and costumes were in keeping with the period, did not appear to have attempted the near impossible.
Caesar and Cleopatra gives a great deal of temptation to overload the stage with scenery; it was, therefore, pleasing to see that the producers had not succumbed. The Drama Festival Adjudicator commented favourably on the use of indication in preference to stuffy detail, and this was certainly a good feature of the production. The difficulty of providing a suitable Sphinx was overcome, the result appearing very convincing on the School stage. Throughout, the scenery was simple but effective and a great deal of time had obviously been spent in painting it.
If scenery was not elaborate, the costumes certainly were, with armour and rich dresses everywhere in evidence, and the beauty of these was unquestionable.
Turning to the actors themselves, there are one or two general observations to be made. The impression gained from the three School performances was of extremely competent part-learning, but not enough study of the actual character; limitation of time may, however, account for this. Another limitation, that of the School Hall acoustics, was not sufficiently realised, and in certain sections of the hall some characters were completely inaudible. There is one more point, perhaps small, but one which is essential to a really first class performance. It should be borne in mind that gesture and portrayal of emotion on the stage, to be effective, must be "larger than life." To take one example: Theodotus's grief, hand-wringing, etc. at the burning of the library at Alexandria was evident enough from the first row, but from the back of the hall his sorrow appeared to be confined to vocal emotion and kneeling at Caesar's feet; other instances of this fault could be quoted.
There is no doubt that many of the roles in Caesar and Cleopatra are long and difficult, that of Caesar being no exception. B.G.Chaplin, who took the part in place of Claridge, did not have a great deal of time to learn it; all the more reason, therefore, to congratulate him on knowing his lines so well. In spite of this, he did not seem to enter into the spirit of the role: not enough contrast was afforded between Caesar the peace-lover, irritated with the "tedious military life," and Caesar the man of action. He was word-perfect in the few moments where the Roman shows any deep emotion, but feeling was lacking. Caesar's quiet humour was, however, conveyed quite well. There was no lack of promise and it is probable that, given more time, Chaplin's performance would have been irreproachable.
P.J.Buck was excellent as Cleopatra, apart from a tendency to gabble, and the transition from the coquettish, silly young girl to what that same girl thought was a Queen, was admirable. Very little constructive criticism can be made of the performance, but one thing is certain: Buck is a definite discovery and he will become a mainstay of the Dramatic Society in the years to come.
From the sweet and gentle Judith in The Devil's Disciple to the evil Ftatateeta in Caesar and Cleapatra: that was the gamut run by D. E. Buck in one year; he adapted himself well, giving of his best in the latter role, far from easy, although his voice did tend to become flat and lifeless in the attempt to be menacing, and it must be said that Ftatateeta sometimes appeared to be merely an irritable old shrew, instead of a malignant influence in Egypt.
Another Devil's Disciple stalwart, A.G.Hellman, gave a restrained and convincing performance as Pothinus, Ptolemy's guardian. He is to be praised all the more because he came from a sick bed to play the first night at the School.
J.A.Bastin was very good as Caesar's friend and lieutenant, Rufio, but in the scenes with Caesar he appeared too rough and dominant, tending to bully his leader too much. The bluff "camp-fed bear" was apparent throughout, and we saw a faithful, brave Roman officer, who, although disagreeing with Caesar at times, certainly loved him.
Shaw could not resist his customary dig at the English even in Caesar and Cleopatra, and C.M.Collins had a part which suited him in Britannus, secretary to Caesar. The pompous Briton, with his fetish of respectability, had the stuffy quality which Collins excels in portraying, and the result was an amusing interpretation.
The part of Theodotus, Ptolemy's tutor, was played by R.E.Durgnat, who introduced the right touch of humour, or rather, pathos into his performance.
J.W.Cook "decorated the stage" as Apollodorus, the flattering Sicilian soldier-artist, as was intended; although at times he delivered his lines in a sing-song fashion.
Minor characters in Caesar and Cleopatra are far too numerous to deal with individually, but especially worthy of mention are K.J.Bridge as Bel Affris and P.F.Borrett as Ptolemy; the latter also understudying the part of Cleopatra.
T.James was excellent as the coarser type of Roman, and R.Gunton who earned praise at Lloyd Park was again Lucius Septimius, Pompey's slayer. Others taking part were C.J Sare, C.T.Withrington, J.L.Mason, S.Gunter, T.R.Round, D.W.Spencer, L.J.Collis, C.D.Risby, W.M.J.Hemmings, J.K.Bird, K.P.Millard, S.Black, J.Orris, J.D.Winslow, D.Oswald, R.A.Quirk, B.P.Goodall, and A.Bowker.
Mr. Brobyn and Mr. Starbuck are to be heartily congratulated on the ambitious production, which far exceeded expectations. The amount of time they spent on preparation of the play was enormous.