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Antony and Cleopatra

Antony (Andrew Wheeler) besotted by Cleopatra (Jennifer Lines). Photo by David BlueAntony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare
Directed by Scott Bellis
Bard on the Beach
Main Stage, Vanier Park
to September 24, 2010

Vancouver, BC: Chronologically Antony and Cleopatra follows just after three of Shakespeare's most powerful tragedies, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. Yet although this tragedy chronicles the downfall and the deaths of the heroic Roman, Mark Antony, and Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, it does not make the same emotional impact on me that the fates of Othello and Lear do. 

Perhaps it is because when we first meet Antony in this play, he is already in thrall to Cleopatra and while in her presence, seems to lack the aura of greatness of a heroic figure. There are many ways to play these two characters but mostly we don't get any sense of the power Cleopatra must wield over the Kingdom of Egypt: instead we only see her as  a manipulative coquette, jealous of the other women in Antony's life. So despite their exalted status as Roman triumvir and Ruler, they seem all too human and commonplace in the way their sexual passion ultimately destroys them.

Or perhaps it is because much of the story is about power, politics and alliances made for expediency, and broken, and it's sad to think that little has changed in 2000 years - other than that modern day political back stabbing is metaphorical rather than literal.

Caesar meets soothsayer. Photo by David BlueThe time is shortly after Julius Caesar has been assassinated, his murderers Brutus and Cassius are defeated, and Rome is ruled by a triumvirate of Octavius Caesar, Marcus Lepidus (one of Caesar's generals) and Mark Antony. Obsessed by his Egyptian lover, Antony dallies in Egypt instead of returning to Rome, to join his allies in fighting Pompey. When he finally returns, after his wife has died, Antony "betrays" Cleopatra by marrying Caesar's sister, Octavia, for political reasons, but then returns to Cleopatra.

Almeera Jiwa, Jennifer Lines, Sarah Afful. Photo by David BlueCleopatra at this stage is more concerned with whether Octavia is more or less attractive than she is, than about the state of her Kingdom. She talks Antony into fighting battles at sea rather than on land  where his strength lies, and then flees with her sixty ships. Instead of fighting on, Antony follows her. Neither are capable of rising above their obsession with each other,  to be the leaders that their positions demand. So their ultimate humiliation and destruction seems inevitable and ho-hum rather than great tragedy.

 The Battle of Actium between Rome and Egypt. Photo: David BlueThat being said, this production has many excellent aspects that stand out in my mind. On the same main stage set that features the Italian courtyard of  Much Ado About Nothing, designer Drew Facey substitutes Roman and Egyptian flags for iron railings and flowers, and leaves one in no doubt at any time whether we are in Rome or in Egypt. The exotic ambiance surrounding Cleopatra versus the solemnity of the Roman triumvirate is also strongly evoked by Noah Drew's sound design. Mara Gottler's costumes as always are gorgeous. And the stylized battle scenes are also cleverly done, conjuring up images of sailing ships swaying in waves as the battles raged.

This is the third stage production of Antony and Cleopatra that I have seen, and the one I enjoyed the most.  Andrew Wheeler brings out the all-too-human aspect of Antony and it's easy to see how he would be bewitched by the playful and gorgeous Cleopatra (Jennifer Lines). Overall Scott Bellis and his cast succeeded in keeping my attention through most of this production despite my caveats about the play itself.

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