Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2007
“War is a science
With rules to be applied
Which good soldiers appreciate
Recall and recapitulate
Before they go to decimate
The other side.”
- Stephen Schwartz
Last summer as I was driving around to many theatres, I listened to tapes of a BCC radio adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. And I discovered that I liked Peace a lot better than I liked War. That is not just a political statement. Yes, I am a pacifist at heart, but from the point of view of pure entertainment value, the segments concerning the peaceful, homely activities of the various families were both more interesting and much easier to follow than the battlefield sequences. War tends to be noisy, confusing, and messy, with little time for exposition or backstory.
There is no Peace in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. In fact it could easily adopt the title of that 1975 Woody Allen film, Love and Death. After the Love and before the Death there is quite a bit of War, and I find myself staunchly on the side of Love. It is both more entertaining and easier to understand than the War. By the time the Death scenes came I was frankly so exhausted that I was ready to stand up and start chanting “Asp! Asp! Asp!” in an effort to hasten that serpent’s entrance and the final curtain.
Antony and Cleopatra is not one of Shakespeare’s best plays. In its uncut version it runs over four hours (here it is clipped to three) and there are large sahara-like stretches of incomprehensible war in between the occasional oases of love and poetry. While Antony and Cleopatra contains some of Shakespeare’s greatest poetry, it is so cumbersome and overwhelming that it is seldom produced (this is only Shakespeare & Company’s second attempt in 30 years) and it usually requires having an actress of the caliber of a Packer, Vanessa Redgrave, or Dame Peggy Ashcroft available before a company even considers it. So it is rare for this play presented at all, and for anyone interested in seeing as much of Shakespeare’s work as possible live on stage, this is an exciting opportunity. It is also a wonderful chance to see Packer perform, something she has not been doing much of during the decades she has devoted to building her company.
Cleopatra VII (69-30 BCE) was 39 at the time of her death, by which time she had been Queen of Egypt four times and had political/sexual alliances with Julius Caesar, Marc Antony (83-30 BCE), and Pompey. The Caesar of this play is Octavius (63 BCE-14 CE), later Augustus, great-nephew to Julius Caesar. Not only was Cleopatra the woman who came between Antony and his second wife Octavia, Octavius’ sister, but she was mother to the true heir to Rome, Julius Caesar’s son, Caesarion. Cleopatra also had three children, including a set of twins, with Antony, a fact Shakespeare completely ignores.
This whole production is about Tina Packer, and Nigel Gore, but mostly Tina Packer. The good news is that, while Packer is more than 20 years older than the historical Cleopatra, she has managed to shave many of those years off by dint of talent and sheer will, and that Gore is her equal in age and stature. They make a handsome couple and it is easy to believe the love story here.
I have had two opportunities to interview Packer one-on-one for articles, most recently this past spring. She and I sat outdoors in the sunshine on a bright and breezy Berkshire day shortly after she had had some surgery. She was wearing no make-up and her hair was quite gray as well as wind-tossed, but her natural beauty was unmistakable. While she was obviously weak physically, her intelligence, charisma, and strength of will were in no way diminished. The actress I saw on the stage last week was carefully corseted and made-up, but the woman I sat with in the sunshine was the one who played Cleopatra. The strength, intelligence and vivacity I saw that spring day was what I saw on stage. It is something worth seeing.
The other performance well worth the price of admission is Walton Wilson’s Enobarbas. Wilson played the role with such clarity, compassion, and power that I found his death scene far more tragic than Antony or Cleopatra’s.
Christianna Nelson and Molly Wright Stuart are appealing as Cleopatra’s attendants Charmian and Iras. Stuart does double duty as Octavia, making the scene in which Cleopatra commands Iras to describe Octavia’s physical appearance an odd one.
Ryan Winkles does a nice job as Pompey and later as Antony’s man Eros who kills himself rather than obeying Antony’s command to kill him. Robert Biggs does his best with the thankless role of Lepidus, the third and obviously weakest member of the ruling Triumvirate formed after the assassination of Julius Caesar. Lepidus is so clearly the under-five extra who beams down to the planet with Kirk and Spock and gets vaporized by the aliens before the first commercial break that is it pathetic. No one in the audience was surprised to learn that he had been ousted from power during the intermission and the three were now two – Caesar and Antony.
I did not care for Craig Baldwin as Octavius Caesar. And I was puzzled by the clear hints he and Hammond had concocted of an incestuous relationship between Octavius and his sister. I actually did a little research to see if he was one of those Roman emperors who married his sister, but he wasn’t. We needed to see that brother and sister were close, but not so close that Octavius would be doubly jealous of Antony – once for stealing the sister he secretly loved and once more for betraying his beloved with Cleopatra.
Shakespeare did not write this play in the conventional five act format with which we are now familiar. He wrote it as 34 montage-like scenes that, while they move forward chronologically, leap about the known world geographically. There is no way that this can was ever or can ever be staged with realistic sets. Actors must just take the stage and say, “Well, here we are in Rome/Alexandria/Sicily/Syria” and let us believe it is so. Here set designer Carl Sprague gives us only the barest hints of where the action is taking place – basically we are either in Egypt or we are not. War banners replace peacock feather fans at the edges of the stage and Bill Barclay’s evocative music lets us know when we have arrived once again on the banks of the Nile.
Some might be distressed that no attempt has been made to make Packer look the way we 21st century Americans think Cleopatra looked. Of course we secretly believe that she looked like Elizabeth Taylor with a lot of kohl around her eyes. Cleopatra was Greek, not Egyptian, and we have only one coin bearing her profile to give us a hint of what she may really have looked like. She probably wasn’t a freckled, red-head like Packer, but she probably didn’t look like Liz either. I was more distressed by the oddly medieval cut to Packer’s costumes than the lack of a black wig and eye-liner.
Frankly, I did not like Arthur Oliver’s costumes for this show at all. As the star of the show Packer got the best deal, but, as I stated above, the period of her dresses was peculiar. She looked nice but I can’t say I thought that that particular style was the most becoming possible, although they did provide her with acres of cleavage. But why was the stamp-printing on Caesar’s robes so sloppy? Why were all the men wearing Velcro sandals from Wal-Mart? And why were all the soldiers on all sides of the combat wearing tie-dye, and such similar tie-dye that it was impossible to tell who was on which side most of the time? The fact that twelve actors were playing all the roles didn’t make it any easier. Someone would be slain as a Roman and reappear ten minutes later as an Egyptian…maybe...who knew?...who cared?
The final tableaux Hammond and Movement Director Susan Dibble have invented, where Osiris and Isis escort Antony and Cleopatra to the afterlife, is unexpected but effective, especially as accompanied by Barclay’s music. According to Shakespeare & Company’s publicity: “A tradition in Antony’s family held that the line was descended directly from Hercules, and he and Cleopatra declared themselves living gods (Osiris and Isis) and gave their first son and daughter the titles ‘Sun’ and ‘Moon.’”
Bottom Line: Tina Packer and Nigel Gore are great actors and Antony and Cleopatra are great roles but Antony and Cleopatra is not a great play. The reasons to buy tickets for this production are either to see Packer and Gore or to add another title to your list of Obscure Shakespearean Plays I Have Seen. Either way, it’s a good deal, but if neither the stars nor the thrill of adding another Shakespearean notch to your belt appeal, this is a show better left unseen.
The Shakespeare and Company production of Antony and Cleopatra runs in repertory through September 2 in the Founders' Theatre, 70 Kemble Street in Lenox. The show runs three hours with one intermission and will be boring for young children. With proper historical preparation ages 12 and up should enjoy it. Call 413-637-3353 for reservations.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007