As the title suggests, Antony and Cleopatra sets the efficient militarism of Rome against the impulsive hedonism of Egypt. Making war collides with making love, laws and logic undercut spontaneity and intuition—this ancient world according to Shakespeare comes to rich life between such poles. In the excellent OSF production of the play onstage in the Elizabethan, director Bill Rauch’s timeless approach to the history and his alertness to ambient comedy highlight a further, more subtle tension: the discrepancy between fact and image, between the ragged truth of human embodiment and the idealizations of heroic myth.
As the play opens, Antony’s reputation is in tatters. Richard Hay’s stark set evokes his quandary: a pair of silver roman pillars straddles two golden triangles, joined along their base to suggest an Egyptian pyramid, as well as the open maw of the crocodile, serpent of the old Nile, a k a Cleopatra. Cleopatra’s modus operandi has been to convert world leaders into lovers. Antony is known for taking and leaving women. Yet Cleopatra holds him in thrall. In her Egypt, lips and eyes open to eternity, brows to bliss, other body parts to heaven.
Then Antony’s wife dies, and a sudden “Roman thought” sends him home, resolved to correct his “blemishes in the world’s report” and reclaim his status in the ruling triumvirate beside Lepidus and Octavius Caesar. Out of range of Cleopatra, he enters a politically favorable marriage to Caesar’s sister.
While Antony refurbishes his public image, young Caesar is in the business of developing his. He’s visualizing world conquest. While Antony’s image as leader stems from his generosity and sense of honor, Caesar builds his on protocol, publicity stunts, and political maneuvering. He’s trained his men to praise his cunning cruelties as “princely” and “full of grace.” He proceeds to destroy everyone who stands in his way, then salutes with Nobel-Prize gravitas the “universal peace” on the horizon.
Caesar’s ambitions roll right over Antony’s legendary status, thereby giving Antony an excuse to return to Cleopatra and take sides with her against Rome. But Antony’s military acumen is eroded by passion, his forces lose to Caesar’s, and he begins his long fall. “I have fled myself,” he laments: cut off from his triumphal image, he feels worthless, a nonentity. After he wrongly assumes Cleopatra’s betrayal, he comes apart: he “cannot hold this visible shape.” Ironically, it’s Cleopatra who will restore Antony’s exalted identity. In fact, nowhere is the discrepancy between reality and myth more blatant than in her paean to him—his “legs bestrid the oceans”—following as it does his botching of a would-be heroic suicide.
As the absolute ruler of Egypt, Cleopatra’s image is actually more flexible. The divinity of Isis is in her blood, and these godly roots enable her childlike side, her mercurial, playful spontaneity. Before the half, when Rauch has her appear before her people in the dazzling “habiliments of Isis” with Antony by her side, she is both larger than life and littler—a girl delighting in playing dress-up. The scene is narrated, however, by the predatory Caesar, to underline how vulnerable she is outside Egypt and its relaxed cultivation of pleasure. It’s what she realizes in the end: her captor Caesar will reduce her magnificent variety to the “posture of a whore.” To protect her immortal image, she must take her own mortal life.
No synopsis of the action does justice to the psychological complexity of this play, the tension between appetite and aspiration, or to the deeply specific performances of the cast. Derrick Lee Weeden’s physical and vocal strength as Antony produce an ironic contrast with his inability to predict or restrain Cleopatra. This Antony seems equally helpless before his own reactive impulses, though as the play progresses, his awareness grows of the impasse he’s created for himself. We love him for his readiness both to soar to poetic, if self-dramatic heights, and to puncture his own grandiosity with disdain.
Miriam Laube is superb as Cleopatra, all sinuous movement and emotional intensity. Her expressive coordinates shift in a flash from regal fury to antic delight as the volatile child in her takes turns with the noble queen. “Keep yourself within yourself,” advises Charmian, asking the impossible. For Cleopatra, being out there, ignoring and exploiting gender boundaries, is a defense mechanism that has insured her survival. She swings a sword, waves a fishing rod, wields a knife, and violently chomps on a pickle. Her mantra might be, “When in need, kick.” A touching moment early in the play gives away her depths: Antony informs her of the death of his wife Fulvia, and her first urge is to reach tenderly for his face. She quells it instantly, remembering he is on his way to Rome.
Raffi Barsoumian performs Caesar as the lovers’ antithesis. His obsessively careful enunciation, the flatness of his language and lack of affect, all communicate cold calculation and a frightening belief in his own righteousness. He delivers a rehearsed farewell over Antony’s corpse, using the occasion to frame himself as the dead hero’s equal and betraying no sense of the travesty this is. He meets with the captive Cleopatra and is deaf to her sarcasm. When he has Cleopatra’s son shot, he is merely safeguarding his new territory.
Caesar is a new generation of leader, the cold, rational victor to whom falls the privilege of writing history. Imagine how dry and two-dimensional his narrative of actions and reactions would be. Then give thanks for Shakespeare and the OSF’s spell-binding, fast-paced version of events for plunging us into what the poet W. B. Yeats would call “the fury and the mire of human veins.”
Molly Tinsley taught literature and creative writing at the U. S. Naval Academy for twenty years. Her latest book is the spy thriller Broken Angels (www.fuzepublishing.com)