FringeReview UK 2022
Read Not Dead ground rules are simple: actors volunteer, are given scripts and then assemble on a Sunday morning, and scripts in hand, enact at four p.m. or afterwards. This production of Caesar and Cleopatra like The Dismissal of the Greek Envoys was directed by James Wallace.
Stage Managers Cleo Maynard and Alex Leese-Terry
Next RND returning next year.
The single Read Not Dead this year is a pendant to the brief, magnificent Polish season exactly three years ago. That was an offshoot from RND’s rehearsed readings project of all English-language plays 1587-1642. It’s like being illumined from a trip-light.
Here we go out of period too. And to a man who hadn’t a hope of seeing his work performed. Expect fireworks, damp squibs, cracking props, exquisite poetry and scenes.
Cyprian Kamil Norwid (1821-83) is known supremely as a poet: his Caesar and Cleopatra’s unfinished but still three hours forty. Worth it. It’s the one RND we’ll see till – hopefully – next year.
In 2019 RND staged two works by Jan Kochanowski (1530-84) – greatest Polish poet before Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855) and greatest Slavic poet before the 19th century. Like Marlowe Kochanowski moved into drama. His extraordinary 1579 The Dismissal of the Greek Envoys was directed by James Wallace, his poetic Laments by Jason Morell.
There’s a link too. After Kochanowski came The Hamlet Study and The Death of Ophelia by painter, theatre designer, director, poet, playwright and visionary Stanislaw Wyspianski (1869-1907). Rediscovered by Wyspianski’s Young Poland generation, Norwid influenced Wyspianski. Not just because Norwid was also poet, playwright, painter and sculptor.
Norwid’s renowned now but his exclusion from Poland’s cultural, even social life – too radical – is infamous; there’s parallels to Gerard Manley Hopkins.
In Caesar and Cleopatra Norwid explores the quick and dead cultures of Rome and Egypt. Cleopatra’s an intelligent ruler whose culture strangles her in mummy-cloth. Literally, since a white-bound mummy’s presented at her breakfast in a basket-seat.
Erotically frustrated, critic Alina Witkowska suggests, Cleopatra and Caesar discover in each other ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’ not the ‘institution’ of rulership. Cleopatra refers to ‘Julius’ not ‘Caesar’. Before this, Cleopatra’s brought to sexual awareness by her encounters with two young men. Translator Charles S. Kraszewski provides superb notes, suggesting:
‘Norwid’s Cleopatra is a rose imprisoned in a bell-jar. Hermetically sealed away… she will… droop, desiccate to the condition of the mummy with whom she shares her sardonic breakfast.’
Kraszewski’s translation of this drama came out in December, so this really is – just for once – hot off the press. It’s a bit of a hot mess too. It’s also startling, masterly in individual scenes, metaphorically riveting and original. The last scenes are unfinished as we then jump-cut across years to Anthony’s death, who only turns up in Act Three. If it’s reading Shakespeare by lightning it leaves twisted stumps. Norwid imported imagery from his poetry. He translates these into props too: today’s team make the most of it.
Read Not Dead ground rules are simple: actors volunteer, are given scripts, then assemble on a Sunday morning, and scripts in hand, enact at four p.m. or afterwards. This production of Caesar and Cleopatra like the Kochanowski was directed by James Wallace.
Norwid’s opening scene is superb. As Ola Forman narrates the opening of each act, intervals and epilogue in Polish and English – another beautiful touch – on come secondary characters.
But they’re not secondary. RND regulars will delight in them and other returning actors, as Founder Patrick Spottiswoode points out introducing the performance. Tim Frances’ venal, exquisitely vulgar and loyal Kondor (Master of Game) anxiously surveys any feast for advantage, mainly food. Oliver Senton’s Chamberlain Eucastus ripostes like a weary political fixer: they’re both fearful. Enter the Roman Knight, washed up from previous wars, John Hopkins who like them threads the action: they advise Cleopatra, and badinage themselves almost off the page. Their quick-fire’s exquisite and leaves us in no doubt Norwid could write a scene. Hopkins who could sing the telephone directory to a Nile crocodile, studs the action with soliloquies, performing an Enobarbus role without his pathos. And Cleopatra heeds him.
Emily Barber had one day’s notice to perform Cleopatra, and jumps in with aplomb. We know her from TV and as Imogen in the 2015 Wanamaker Cymbeline. She has to judge.
That’s after a fully-stacked table is laid with a tablecloth feast (last seen in Metamorphoses last October) so we get Hero filching at the end. Nia Ashi’s first appearance as Jackal, a table server, when we’re brought up short by hyperbole in person: Michael Matus’ fantastically ham Hero, a panegyrist of Alexandrine rhetoric who finds himself performing the play’s last action as we have it. Manus romps through the character’s absurdity.
There’s Nadia Shash’s progressively deprived Soothsayer who ends up blind with shades, soberer the more outlandish her prophesies. Norwid gifts her a hair-raising one at the end of Act Two.
Norwid’s establishing scene is shrewd. Cleopatra’s first job is to judge why two men didn’t recognize her shadow and bow to it. This marks the hyperbolic Romantic view of tyrannical rule, as opposed to degree and measure – never mind caprice – in say Shakespeare’s readings. Here it’s palpably absurd; Norwid revels in depicting how Cleopatra writhes in winding cloths.
James Bradwill, who’ll ably return in more roles, as professional diver Mun-Faleg explains he was doing homage to his father’s ritually-embalmed arm, having saved said father but not eventually the arm. When this is explained, he’s off with a gold coin.
Ammar Duffus’ Abdala Ganimedion who doesn’t know Cleopatra at all has a different explanation. His betrothed asks for a drink:
Resting the cool amphora on my shoulder.
I kissed her lips with the jar’s wet clay mouth.
She closed her eyes. And gazing at her lashes…
‘Upon his cheeks… a flash of mystery.’ Lovingly detailed like this all the aroused Cleopatra can do is give him a coin. With her face on. Abdala Ganimedion’s stunned. It’s these moments that stay.
Sam Butters, Jonathan Forbes, Elliott Fiztpatrick (Fortunius) and James Bradwell (Calligion) join the cast as Hopkins’ Knight prophesies rapid Roman advance. It doesn’t help Ptolomey’s been killed by Cleopatra’s offstage brother.
David Meyer’s careful Achilles, the late Roman’s delegate is swiftly followed by Deidre Mullins’ Caesar and colloquies ensue between the two rulers. Mullins’ laconic quick-fire questions proves Caesar’s dialogue thrives in bronzed exchanges with soldiers. It’s a familiar Caesar Norwid feels at home with: rulers-in-love scenes are too freighted.
Norwid’s dramaturgy slows too, as philosophical discussions of rulership wind round the pop-ups of Duffus’ Karpon and Ashi’s Harper, as questions of art eddy. Luckily Bradwell – who summons a different voice for each role – turns up as Lyrist, exploding in coughs, unable to perform his tedious panegyric. It’s a touch proving Norwid’s sense of theatre; but he needed a Wyspianski as dramaturg.
We’re soon at Act Two’s end; the burgeoning love affair’s scotched as Caesar’s offstage death is prophesied. Norwid focuses on climactically brief outfall.
Forman performs a near-silent Cornelia, Pompey’s widow flitting across like Diana from Mike Bartlett’s Charles III. It wouldn’t be ancient Egypt without a rite, so Frances and Duffus perform one atmospherically, as Shash prophesies again. Fitzpatrick, Ashi and Duffus turn up in the third act as Olympos, Eroe, and Roman guest Delius, basically to swell as scene as David Meyer’s architect Psymmachus steals the show pronouncing Norwid’s aesthetic of himself:
‘Perhaps some day I’ll disappear forever,’ muses master-builder Psymmachus ‘Becoming one with my work…’ He’s certainly a major character of this last act, as finally Forbes’ Mark Antony dominates. Witty (Hero’s quivering with ecstasy about him, not realising his hero is just behind) and heroic, his appearance is almost faux de mieux. We get little wooing of Cleopatra but a twink of attraction.
Norwid doesn’t negotiate these: we read years in lightning flashes, Butters and Bradwell apparate as Plancus and Dolabella, ‘Envoys of Octavian’; Antony knows the game’s up. Utilising those ready drinking props, Forbes pumps up hapless Hero with a drug, asks him to test Antony’s armour by running full tilt at him with a sword. Matus looks on baffled and aghast.
Cleopatra and Caesar is unfinished, but we get it. It needs pull-through, introduces characters throughout like a sprawling epic, but might have ended in Act Two. Act Three’s a different play and they do things differently there. Norwid himself seems uncertain how to stride like a triumvir over terrain Shakespeare mapped.
Dramatically Norwid’s Antony serves instead as sexual compensation for thwarted love. We get hints of this, but it’s as frustrated as Cleopatra herself. Hero’s hapless act though is so good that Norwid breaks off; he can’t quite follow it with a snake and swerves Cleopatra’s final consummation. It’s an effective, farcical end, bringing us round to that opening trio Norwid outlined so well. You can write poetry in isolation, but Norwid’s genius as a dramatic writer never stood a chance.
It hardly needs adding this production is an astonishing privilege, so much of it theatrically realised in Wallace’s company.