Saturday, July 19, 2008

Plummer Prepares for Caesar

From Richard Ouzounian at the Toronto Star:

"Arthur Christopher Orme Plummer walks into The Belfry Restaurant late on a summer's day.

"He pauses by one of the stained glass windows, splendidly backlit by the afternoon sun and looks about as regal as it's possible for a man to be without benefit of royal robes.

"At the age of 78, he still stands ramrod-straight, eternally tan, eyes flashing with mischief, as a slightly sardonic grin plays around his lips, making you feel he's just been told a joke that you couldn't possibly understand.

"We don't confer titles on our North American actors, but if we did, he would surely be Sir Christopher, if not Lord Plummer.

"Just the kind of man who should be playing Julius Caesar, which is a fortunate occurrence, because that's what he's here to do this summer.

"Not Shakespeare's Caesar, a dusty bore who dies before the show is half finished, but the one imagined by George Bernard Shaw in Caesar and Cleopatra, directed by Des McAnuff and starting previews on Aug. 7 at the Festival Theatre.

"Plummer sits down, orders a glass of red wine and relaxes. His jacket is stylishly cut, but the lack of a tie indicates that this man may be imperial, yet he's not imperious.

"Ask him why he wants to do this particular script and he cuts right to the chase.

"'Because it's very, very kinky. I feel like I'm playing Humbert in Lolita. A sexy, smart older man infatuated with a devilishly divine kitten of a much younger woman.'

"Having caused a shock wave with his daring opening line (as he knew he would) he instantly backpedals with grace, as the naughty but well-mannered Westmount boy that he was raised to be.

"'It's not quite as lascivious as Lolita,' he purrs, 'but there is that naughty frisson behind the relationship that keeps the audience on their toes without being filthy.

"'I've loved this play for a long, long time. It's not done very often because it's expensive to mount, but it's so fascinating because Shaw suddenly becomes a sexy writer, a sensual writer. My God! It's a romantic comedy up there on the stage.'

"Cleopatra isn't present this afternoon, but Plummer hastens to praise the actor playing the role, the 24-year-old Nikki M. James.

"'I'm so glad we've got someone truly young in the part,' exults Plummer, 'and I'm thrilled with what she's doing. She's got great energy and grace and youth...ah, youth!'

"But it takes more than a charming leading lady and a tempting script to get Plummer to commit his time and energy. He's still in demand for stage work in New York and London as well as for movies around the world.

"So what brought him back to Stratford this year?

"'I'm here because I wanted to come and support Des (McAnuff),' says Plummer simply, speaking of the Festival's Artistic Director. 'I thank God that he's here. He takes risks, he dares, he's got a wonderful theatrical sense. He's just the right kind of person to take over at the moment.'

"Although always proudly Canadian, Plummer has been a citizen of the world for 50 years, working anywhere and everywhere he chooses, which is why he applauds McAnuff's decisions to broaden the Festival's artistic horizons by bringing in first-rate talent from America, England and Europe.

"'Des has got such great antennae towards the right people in other lands,' observes Plummer, 'and he's not afraid to ask them to join us.

"'We used to do it here at Stratford all the time and there were always some people who bitched and said "They've all got to be Canadian." That's ridiculous! How can Canadian actors ever learn unless they pitch themselves against stars from other countries?'

"Plummer is positive about a lot of the transformations he sees happening in this first season, even though he knows that some discord and a certain amount of financial pain has emerged.

"'It's all good. It's all exciting. It doesn't matter if it's rocky or not. It's change and this place needed it.'

"Of course, he wouldn't be Plummer the Perfectionist if he didn't find some faults and he's ready to speak about them as well.

"'We've got to get all the genteel theatre out of the place, the kind of thing that people love to come to see because they know they can drop off and have a nice snooze.

"'I also feel there are too many plays being done here. Actors can't do their best work if they're constantly running madly from one show to another. It's like going to a restaurant with a menu that's so big you know the chef just can't prepare every dish well.'

"Plummer's passion for Stratford even surprises himself and he pauses to take a sip of wine, speaking more softly when he resumes.

"'I guess I have an unconscious desire to always be a part of Stratford because the defining event of my life took place here.

"'I was 26 years old, it was 1956 and I played Henry V here. It was glorious. The French were played by actors from Quebec and the whole concept of bringing this country together became something that actually seemed possible.'

"Ask him what he remembers about Stratford when he wakes up at four in the morning and he laughs.

"'Going to bed at four in the morning. No, really, that's what it was. A big party. We were all like that.

"'The company wanted to test me. They would keep me up drinking till all hours because they wanted to see if I was tough enough to carouse all night and then perform Henry V at a matinee the next day. And if you did, you were a man, my son.'

"The word 'retire' isn't in Plummer's vocabulary and he grows excited again as he talks about the kind of work he still wants to do.

"'I want to play characters who drive, who do, who make things happen.

"'Al Pacino and I talked about doing Volpone together, but the only trouble is that Al always wants to do 14 years of workshops first and by the time he got through them, I'd be dead.'

"Plummer drains his glass of wine and looks off in the distance where the sun is sinking ever lower in the sky.

"'I do want to play Prospero one day,' he says a bit wistfully, 'but it's always regarded as a farewell performance and I don't even want to think of that.

"'No, not yet.'"

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