Perhaps one day it will be discovered that the greatest of all Shakespeare's plays is the much neglected "Antony and Cleopatra." At least that's what's revealed in the intimacy of The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland's New Theatre. The simplicity of this production of director Penny Metropulos reduces the huge cast to fifteen characters. It removes all of the stunning spectacle in which the power of the drama of the shaping of the future of the Roman Empire under Augustus Caesar, and the force of the true love of the title characters can't help but be obscured. Richard L. Hay's sets are reduced to a few lines and colors, the costumes of Andrew V. Yelusich are richly exotic and set the time and place. The electronic music of Sound Designers Larry Delinger and Dennis M. Karbury goes straight to the brain. The simplicity of the whole, pierces to the heart of the characters and the drama. This production reduces everything to emotion, drama, and the most sublime poetry of Shakespeare.
The love affair of Romeo
and Juliet packs power in its innocence, but how many of us who have attained
middle age are still with our first love? Indeed, Cleopatra alludes to this
when Charmian teases her about her affair with Julius Caesar. She replies that
the romance was "In my salad days,/when I was green in judgment."
This is mature love; a love which many of us have seen last. What is more powerful
than Cleopatra facing death, "Give me my robe, put on my crown: I have/immortal
longings in me: now no more/the juice of Egypt's grape shall moist this lip;-/Yare,
yare, good Iras; Quick-methinks I hear/Antony call; I see him rouse himself/
to praise my noble act; I hear him mock the luck of Caesar, which the Gods give
men/ to excuse their after wrath. Husband, I come: /now to that name my courage
prove my title!/I am fire and air/ my other elements/ I give to baser life."
In the intimacy of the New Theatre, then she's fifteen feet in front of you,
throwing her arms up in supplication to the heavens, it tears your heart out.
Like "Romeo and Juliet" this is a great personal drama about star crossed lovers. This has the added element of finishing the events which began on the Ides of March. After Caesar's assassination, the triumvirate of Octavius Caesar, Lepidus, and Antony ruled Rome, following their victory over the element led by Cassius and Brutus at Phillippi. Octavius consolidates the power of the Roman Empire in himself as Augustus. Antony is already married to Fulvia at the beginning, but when she dies he is still not free to marry his true love, Cleopatra. For Rome and his stake in the empire, he is forced into a political marriage with Caesar's sister Octavia, to cement their alliance. The Soothsayer and the Queen's women sing. It's almost a chant and Cleopatra acknowledges, "Music: moody food of us that trade in love." When the messenger brings her news of Antony's marriage, she beats and curses him, then chases him with a knife.
Pompeius, the son of Julius Caesar's rival, Pompey the Great is also threatening
Rome. When he conjures the Civil War and Philippi, the Triumvirate offers him
Sicily and Sardenia to rid the sea of pirates with his navy. His soldier Menas
revels in Antony's marriage to Octavia, saying he will return to Cleopatra,
and blow up the alliance with Caesar. As Pompey and the Triumvirate drink on
his ship, Menas is the only sober one, and says they should cut the lines, then
cut the throats of the Triumvirate, and end the war right there. Pompey refuses
and Menas defects to Antony.
Antony and Caesar have a falling out. Octavia is wretched at having "my heart torn apart by two dear lords." Caesar fires back, "Welcome to Rome." The Soothsayer tells Antony that "Caesar will rise higher, stay not at his side, make space between you." It's back to Egypt. Caesar and Lepidus kill Pompey, then Caesar arrests Lepidus. Now it's only Caesar and Antony, with Cleopatra between them. Antony wants to fight at sea, even though that's his weakness. His army far overpowers Caesar's, but he won't listen to his generals. When Cleopatra offers sixty ships, that cements it. The Egyptian ships turn and run from the battle, Antony follows, and they are soundly defeated.
Antony staggers in dazedly, "The land bids me stand no more upon't: It is ashamed to bear me! I have lost my way, I have fled myself and have instructed cowards to run and show their shoulders." Cleopatra prostrates herself to him, then he to her for his shame. They are both torn apart by the defeat. They have lost half the world. The Triple Pillar of the World, conquered by Cleopatra, had to follow her. They embrace, kiss passionately, and walk off together.
Caesar pledges to let Cleopatra
retain her lands if she kills or banishes Antony. He sends Dolabella to seduce
her. Antony has him whipped, sends him back to Caesar with his curses. Antony
recognizes his position. He's defeated, and he knows it. It's Cleopatra's birthday,
and they have one last night of revelry. Antony challenges Caesar to a duel
as Enobarbus leaves him with "When valor preys on reason/It beats the sword
it fights with." Thunder and lightning, with very other worldly electronic
music, mark the departure of Hercules from Antony. He and Cleopatra part. He
has thrown away the immortal world for earthly pleasure.
Antony sends Eros with Enobarbus' treasure: "Oh, my fortunes have corrupted honest men." Enobarbus has betrayed he whom he loved most. He will not fight against Antony and his betrayal kills him. Antony threatens Cleopatra. She knows not why. She rises up for him to strike, and he runs off. "More mad than Ajax for his shield."
It's to her monument for
Cleopatra, madness for Antony. She tells Charmian to go to Antony, tell him
she is dead, and see how he takes it. Antony thinks the Queen is in league with
Caesar and says "Our task is done." Antony commands Eros to kill him,
but Eros can't, and kills himself instead. Only Antony can kill Antony. He stabs
himself, but is only wounded. Cleopatra has him dragged up to her monument where
he dies in her arms. Caesar sends Agrippa, whom Antony has told her she can
trust, to assure her he has no intention of making her a captive. "Come
death and take a Queen/worth many babes and beggars." She spits in his
face. "I dreamt there was an emperor Antony." She's delirious as she
rails to the greatness of Antony. Caesar enters and says "Which is the
Queen?" She spits out a derisive laugh. Dolabella tells her of Caesar's
plans, and she thanks him. She is to be paraded through Rome. "I have nothing
of woman in me/From head to toe I am marble."
The Eastern Star has left the world as Caesar comes for his prize. "She shall be buried by her Antony:/No grave upon the earth shall clip in it/A pair so famous. High events as these/strike those that make them: And their story is/No less in pity than his glory which/Brought them to be lamented." Armando Duran and Judith-Marie Bergan are riveting in the title roles of this astounding production of "Antony and Cleopatra" at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland's New Theatre, continuing through November 2.