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Antony and Cleopatra

A Reflection of Midlife Crises

Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario
Tuesday, August 26, 2014, Aisle 6, D–5&6, center grandstand of thrust stage
Directed by Gary Griffin

Cleopatra in center in lithe dress of black folded fabric with jeweled shoulder straps looking ahead with a serious stare, in the back ground two women in black shoulder-baring dresses, with ladders visible in the set, and a pillow in the lower corner of the photo
Cleopatra (Yanna McIntosh, center) with an attendant (Ijeoma Emesowum, left) and Iras (Jennifer Mogbock), awaits her doom in her monument in the Stratford Festival production of William Shakespearea's Antony and Cleopatra at the Tom Patterson Theatre. Photo by David Hou, Stratford Festival.

It has always been my contention that William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra is an intimate play. Its geographic scope covers the ancient world from Rome to the steppes of Asia and its population numbers in the triple dozens with four rulers among them. Yet Shakespeare keeps every scene small and confined to the space of a home, a council room, a ship's deck. Rather than a large proscenium stage with extensive scenery, the theater of my imagination for Antony and Cleopatra is in the round or a bare deep-thrust stage (allowing piles of pottery urns in the corners), the audience crowding in and sharing in the secrets of Antony, Cleopatra, Octavius Caesar, and Enobarbus.

That is exactly what you get with Stratford Festival's sumptuous production at its deep-thrust Tom Patterson Theatre, with Yanna McIntosh capturing every brilliant facet of the Egyptian queen, and Tom McCamus bringing Enobarbus home in a most singularly personal way. However, director Gary Griffin also focuses on intimacy's cousin, insularity, in presenting us with characters trying to manage their vast empires while stuck in their own, private little worlds.

This is not just the divide between Rome and Egypt, the former represented by red banners, wood-chair thrones, and crest-helmeted legionnaire uniforms, the latter by Oriental lamps, a silk-pillowed bed, and sexy side-slit dresses of gold for the women and Arabian pants for the bare-chested men (Charlotte Dean is the designer, and her Egyptian costumes will get your loins humming whatever your sexual preference may be). This is about personal perspective. So many events, past and present, occur offstage and are rendered on stage as reports. The word report, in fact, appears 16 times in the play—example: "I did inquire it, and have my learning from some true reports," Antony says to Octavius in their summit. The word heard with similar application is used 17 times, as in Lepidus saying, "I have heard that Julius Caesar grew fat with feasting there." "You have heard much," Antony replies, the implication being that Lepidus has not experienced the truth. Antony and Cleopatra is Shakespeare's version of a supermarket tabloid that pushes fact beyond the edges of veracity. In the play's most comical moment, Cleopatra beats the messenger for his reporting Antony's marriage to Octavia, and then rewards him later for reporting Octavia's features to be less than those of Cleopatra's. The medium is the message for Cleopatra.

What we see over and over again are characters with conflicting perspectives beyond their political and military competitions. In the play's most famous poetic passage, Enobarbus describes to Octavius's lieutenants, Agrippa and Mecenas, Cleopatra's first meeting with Antony on her barge, which "like a burnished throne burned on the water." She in "cloth of gold, of tissue" is so beautiful that she could "outwork nature," and Antony "pays his heart for what his eyes eat only." Agrippa's response to this vision: "Royal wench! She made great Caesar lay his sword to bed. He ploughed her, and she cropped." Aside from showing that Agrippa got his education on romance in a locker room, this sequence illustrates how the Rome of soldierly virtue espoused by Octavius cannot fathom the sensuous world of Eastern mysticism that has entranced itinerate playboy Antony.

Meanwhile, Antony is so lost in this sensual world that he fails to grasp the practical military world of Octavius closing in on him. Even the play's most worldly wise character, Antony's aide Enobarbus, is undone by failing to understand the breadth of another man's heart when, after turning against Antony, his general nevertheless sends his treasures after him with his good wishes. The only character who seems to see clearly into various human natures is the play's most self-centered one, Cleopatra. After listening to Octavius promise her "so to dispose you as yourself shall give us counsel," Cleopatra comments to her waiting women upon his departure, "he words me, girls, he words me," and she immediately sets her own suicide into action.

As Griffin writes in his director's notes, "There's something very adult about Antony and Cleopatra." In fact, Antony and Cleopatra is Romeo and Juliet all grown up. The central theme is the same: two lovers from two households/cultures so infatuated with each other that they ignore the depth and breadth of the enmity around them and, thwarted by the fates and their own poor choices, end up committing suicide as their only salvation. The crux moments come when Romeo kills Juliet's cousin Tybalt and Antony marries then abandons Octavius's sister, Octavia. Romeo receives an inaccurate report that Juliet has died and so kills himself; Antony receives an inaccurate report that Cleopatra has died and so kills himself, but botching it such that he gets a final moment with her before he passes on (some directors also have Romeo see Juliet alive before he expires). Romeo and Juliet awaken to the dawning of sexual realization; Antony and Cleopatra are enjoying sexuality's high noon, learning what many of us who have passed 50 know, that the sex is never better than right now.

The difference between the two couples is not just age but what comes with age: responsibility. While Romeo and Juliet are just kids to be ruled, Antony and Cleopatra are, respectively, a Roman Triumvir and an Egyptian queen who rule nations. Would they were not. "Let Rome in Tiber melt," Antony rails at messengers from Octavius. "Melt Egypt into Nile" Cleopatra wails at the messenger with news of Antony's marriage to Octavia. These two love the power and the luxury it brings, but they are growing increasingly loathsome of the mental, physical, and emotional labor that comes with power and wish their cares could just melt away into the bliss they enjoy in each others' presence.

This is called a midlife crisis. "I see its characters wrestling with the issues of middle age when you realize your life may have arrived," the 54-year-old Griffin writes about the play, and he brings this to the surface in subtle ways in his production. As Cleopatra fantasizes on the absent Antony, she wonders if he will "Think on me, that am with Phoebus' amorous pinches black, and wrinkled deep in time?" McIntosh almost chokes on the word "wrinkled." Antony, as his defeats mount and Octavius makes overtures to Cleopatra, has that great cry concerning his adversary: "He makes me angry with him; for he seems proud and disdainful, harping on what I am, not what he knew I was." In terms of political viability, this argument is of no account. It is howling at the moon, and everybody on stage, including Antony (Geraint Wyn Davies), knows it.

So much for subtext. Visually, this production emanates from McIntosh's Cleopatra. Keep in mind that any description I offer comes from a man whose libido is the largest part of his brain, but I suspect that all the men much mightier than I who have encountered this Egyptian siren all started from the same place as I did watching McIntosh. She is gorgeous, she is sensuous, she is stylish, she is flirtatious down to every fiber, she is incorrigible but she is addictive, too, and she is easily the smartest person in the room, whatever room that may be, even if it entails the entire Roman empire. Laugh at her antics, laugh at her manipulations, but don't underestimate her grasp of people and political reality. McIntosh's Cleopatra is a woman who wrapped two conquerors around her little finger, and she also plays on Octavius's need for control and ends up mastering him, not vice versa as he would believe. McIntosh is the eighth Cleopatra I've seen live on stage, a list that includes Glenda Jackson, Vanessa Redgrave, and the formerly incomparable Judi Dench. As with Dame Dench, McIntosh derives subtle purpose out of every line to form her character, but she twines all of Cleopatra's personalities into a single strand made multifaceted with gold-, silver-, and ebony-gilded threads. She is entrancing to watch, wondrous to behold.

No wonder Antony can't think straight. Davies plays Antony very much in the throes of passion for Cleopatra and all she represents, but also in the woes of his fading reputation in Rome. A big part of him doesn't care about the latter so long as he has the former. But once his first wife—who had waged war against Octavius—is dead and the empire is truly in need of his forces and generalship, he returns to Rome. He becomes, for a moment, the responsible Roman; this Antony really does want the alliance to Octavius via marrying his sister Octavia (Carmen Grant) to work. The council of the triumvirs, as staged here, reveals him to be the better general and stronger personality. Lepidus (Randy Hughson) is physically weak and of little fortitude; he also clearly does not trust Octavius. Ben Carlson's Octavius, so bold and self-assured in Antony's absence, becomes little more than a sniveling wannabe in Antony's presence, shrinking in his seat as he issues meaningless accusations at his rival. The only way he regains control of the proceedings is to stage-manage Agrippa (Peter Hutt) into proposing the marriage of Antony to Octavia.

Antony stands in red skirt and cape with leather breastplate and decorative armor hanging down the sleeve and skirt and leather boots facing Octvius in white senator's toga sitting in a wood X-shaped chair with curved arms and legs, The back of somebody's head is in the left of the picture.
Antony (Geraint Wyn Davies, standing) contends with Octavius Caesar (Ben Carlson, seated right) in the Triumvir's council in Rome during the Stratford Festival's production of William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra in the Tom Patterson Theatre. Photo by David Hou, Stratford Festival.

The casting of Carlson as Octavius Caesar is questionable only in that he is not a young political hotshot to Antony's aging warrior, which is historical and, to me, Shakespeare's intent. Rather, this Octavius is not only of Antony's years but also seems to be fretting middle age and the need to establish his legacy before it's too late. Antony's insult of him as "boy," Carlson's Octavius regards as ridiculous, though it bothers him still. He's a control freak, trying to keep close control of his destiny, too much control over his sister, and, of course, ultimate political control with riddance of his rivals. But he wants all of this to happen on his carefully orchestrated terms, and Carlson brings out the steel-eyed, dangerous politician beneath the statesman when he needs to keep everybody on his score. The only wall that seems impenetrable to Cleopatra's wiles is when Octavius in mildest terms threatens the lives of her children should she "seek to lay on me a cruelty by taking Antony's course" of killing himself. In this line, Carlson's Octavius considers Antony's suicide a defeat; of course, Cleopatra sees that, and knows Antony's course to be the only way she can give Octavius an even greater defeat, which, to her, is more important than her children's safety.

Enobarbus is a special case. He has long been one of my favorite characters in the canon, and Tom McCamus does more than play him so adroitly. His Enobarbus, with the weather-beaten square face and long braided hair, looks and talks and even behaves exactly like my friend Tim O'Brien, one-time reporter for Amusement Business (except, instead of braids, O'Brien had a pony tail). When I was a journalist covering the amusement industry for Funworld and Amusement Today and then publishing my own online newsletter, The Loop, O'Brien was my competitor colleague. Professional rivals, we nevertheless became good friends. Like O'Brien, McCamus's Enobarbus ever bears a knowing but pleasant grin in his aspect and speaks with easy irreverence, but his sense of duty always comes first and his loyalty withstands every test until he sees his captain's inevitable self-destruction through poor judgment.

Seeing and hearing Tim O'Brien instead of Enobarbus in this Antony and Cleopatra was at first disconcerting, but then I went with the universal genius at work here. Even though we are watching a play written more than 400 years ago, presented as events that happened more than 2,000 years ago, we are looking into a reflection of our own experiences. The tale of Antony and Cleopatra may be a legend, but Shakespeare's story about them is about us, too.

Eric Minton
August 24, 2014

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