Antony & Cleopatra is Shakespeare’s most ambitious work: spanning one decade, two continents, and a potentially dizzying array of emotional registers, the late tragedy is uncompromising in the challenges it lays at the feet of any artists daring enough to mount it.
Director Emily Mann and the McCarter Theatre accept, meet, and surpass those challenges with grace and confidence. This production manages to skip smoothly and clearly across the Mediterranean from Rome to Egypt and back in one playing space, while invoking a welcome briskness into a long and potentially plodding script (some light abridging helps). Add a litany of rapturous performances to the smart production and direction decisions, and this Antony & Cleopatra shimmers with a vibrant urgency.
Written as Shakespeare was transitioning from his most tragic period into his late-career meditations on moral and spiritual ambiguity, Antony & Cleopatra marries the epic scale of imperial politics and grand battles with the interpersonal struggles of identity that plague its title characters. Antony is a triumvir of the Roman empire—a “triple pillar of the world,” who shares rule with two other men—but has been shirking his political and martial duties to the empire while living in leisure at Alexandra with his lover, the Egyptian queen. When the din of political turmoil grows too demanding for him to ignore, Antony must return home to face the ire of the most powerful other triumvir, Octavius Caesar. After several failed efforts at reunification, civil war erupts and the love that had united Antony and Cleopatra is quickly augmented by a political and military alliance. With the third triumvir, Lepidus, summarily ushered out of power, we find Octavius versus Antony and Cleopatra in a battle whose stakes are at the highest.
And yet Shakespeare deploys all of this political turmoil in the service of penetrating examinations of his title characters’ fraught psyches. Cleopatra is a powerful Mediterranean queen, but all power is relative, and the force of Rome dwarfs that of Egypt. Her union with Antony (and so also in her previous affair with Julius Caesar) is as much political security as it is romance. Antony on the other hand is a once-great general and politico who finds his power and influence waning in response to the steady rise of Octavius. In Cleopatra and Egypt, Antony finds welcome respite from a home country that is growing steadily less hospitable.
In the union of Antony and Cleopatra, then, we see a fiery passion underwritten by a deeply seated, shared need for each other. The play is often dubbed a mature Romeo and Juliet, but these two lovers have far more than a few crossed stars driving them: they are each other’s best and perhaps last hope at fulfillment.
Nicole Ari Parker and Esau Pritchett capture all of this complexity with expert deft. Parker’s Cleopatra vacillates from sensual to petulant and bitter to graceful and composed, and back again over the course of the evening, but all her mercurialness remains grounded in the clear needs and desires of queen. In Antony, Pritchett shows us vividly all the struggles for secure identity that the general faces. He does not seem any longer to be entirely Roman, and he is never entirely Egyptian, so these struggles are at once personal and political. Pritchett reveals Antony’s turmoil most clearly when the general must respond to the varied and conflicting demands placed upon him. Pritchett’s burly frame dwarfs all his cast mates, but he succeeds nonetheless in elucidating the weakness of character that harangues Antony to the end.
Much of this play’s production difficulty lies with the challenge of presenting both Rome and Egypt on the same stage within the minuscule time span of a scene change. Mann meets this difficulty admirably through light and sound. The opening scenes in Egypt feature a warm yellow glow, accented by fluid and sinewy tonal music. This abruptly switches to a metallic cacophony and bright white light signaling the shift to Rome. This light and soundscape will continue throughout the production, as Mann insightfully accents the earthy aspects of Egypt and the colder, humanized elements of Rome. Much of the show’s sound comes from percussionist Mark Katsaounis who sits just offstage playing a fascinating collection of orbs, drums, bells, and chimes. The effect is wonderful, especially when Katsaounis moves to the stage to help give an expressionist rendering of the Battle of Actium, the climactic struggle between Caesar and Antony’s forces.
Shakespeare did theater companies no favors in his grand conception of this late tragedy, but while the temptation might very well be to meet that concept at its most grand (something which the McCarter is certainly equipped to do), Mann and the McCarter succeed here in choosing to embrace the nuance of character, mood, and emotion to fuel their small-scale and beautiful Antony & Cleopatra.