Monday, August 18, 2008

A History of Plummer at Stratford

From Richard Ouzounian at the Toronto Star:

"When the curtain rose on Caesar and Cleopatra’s opening performance at Stratford last night, it marked the 14th role that Christopher Plummer has created for the festival.

"Most of them took place within the years between 1956 and 1967. In fact, in the last 41 years, Julius Caesar is only the third role he has played at Stratford.

"'I know I don’t come back here often enough,' Plummer told me wistfully a few weeks ago, 'but I still think it’s home.'

"He certainly made one of the splashiest debuts in history, playing the title role in Henry V in 1956, when he was only 26, making an electric impression on everyone. The great American critic Brooks Atkinson called him 'magnificent' and Plummer recently called the production 'the defining event of my life.'

"He returned the next year to earn a similar triumph as Hamlet, directed by Michael Langham. But Plummer himself feels, 'I was too young to play Hamlet then. I’m ready now. But that’s the damnable thing about that role. When you’re smart enough to do it, you’re too old to play it.'

"But whereas in 1956 Plummer had only played one role, in 1957 he paired his tragic Hamlet with a broadly comic Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Tyrone Guthrie’s staging of Twelfth Night.

"By 1958, Plummer was a full member of the Stratford family and appeared in three shows: as the buffoonish Bardolph in Henry IV, Part I, as the witty Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing and as the tormented Leontes in The Winter’s Tale.

"His supporting players included his wife, Tammy Grimes, which made it easier to care for their daughter Amanda, who had just passed her first birthday. American star Jason Robards Jr. and British diva Eileen Herlie were also his co-stars that summer.

"The 1959 Stratford season was Plummer-less, because he was on Broadway, starring opposite fellow Canadian Raymond Massey in Archibald MacLeish’s Pulitzer Prize-winning modern verse adaptation of the Book of Job, J.B. Plummer was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Actor but did not win.

"He returned to Stratford in 1960 in two flashy but supporting roles, Phillip the Bastard in King John and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, with actors such as Julie Harris and Bruno Gerussi.

"He skipped the 1961 season, when Paul Scofield was the leading performer, only to return in 1962 to play a pair of giant parts: the title roles in Macbeth and Cyrano De Bergerac.

"The poorly received 'barbaric' Macbeth, directed by Peter Coe, was one of Plummer’s less happy experiences, despite the pleasure of working with Kate Reid as Lady Macbeth. 'I can trace the arthritis that haunts me to this day,' he moaned in an earlier interview, 'to all the time Peter (Coe) made us spend sitting on the cold damp floor.'

"But the opposite was the case with Cyrano. Once again working with Langham as director, Plummer found a role he would return to later in his career, winning a Tony Award in 1974 for playing the part in the musical version. 'I love Cyrano,' Plummer observed. 'He’s all the best parts of me and none of the worst.'

"The next five years found Plummer occupied on the stages of London and New York as well as in the movie that would make him a household name, The Sound of Music.

"When he finally returned to Stratford in 1967, it was a memorable experience. With Langham in charge, Plummer was joined by Zoe Caldwell in a production of Antony and Cleopatra that is still spoken of with awe.

"But despite the magic of that performance, nearly 30 years would pass before Plummer played a role on a Stratford stage again. His theatrical career flourished in the West End and on Broadway, his TV and film appearances were legion, but he was absent from this Ontario town.

"In 1993, he appeared for a special performance to celebrate the festival’s 40th anniversary, but it wasn’t until 1996 that he actually played a part again: the flamboyant, self-destructive American actor John Barrymore in William Luce’s Barrymore.

"Producer Garth Drabinsky, who had worked with Plummer onscreen, was the force behind this show, bringing it to Broadway, where it won Plummer another Tony. The 2002 production of King Lear, directed by Jonathan Miller, found Plummer in rare form playing the title role. It too transferred to New York, where Plummer earned one more Tony nomination.

"He shared his secret to the role. 'Everyone is so damned earnest when they play this guy. I believe that if you take care of the humour, then the tragedy will take care of itself.

"'Indeed, that’s how I’ve played my entire life.'

"And now Caesar and Cleopatra. Will it follow the path of Plummer’s last two Stratford shows and travel to Manhattan and Tony adulation? And after that, will there be yet another role to draw him to this stage that has been so much a part of his life?

"Or perhaps he’ll be thinking of several things when he looks at Cleopatra in the final scene and says, 'I do not think we shall meet again. Farewell.'"

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