ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA by William Shakespeare, directed by Ruth Madoc-Jones, with Sean Dixon, Lesley Dowey, Gregory Prest and Brett Christopher. Presented by Shakespeare in the Rough in Withrow Park (south of Danforth, between Logan and Carlaw). Previews August 3-4, opens August 5 and runs to September 4, Wednesday-Saturday 7 pm, matinees Sundays, August 7 and September 4 at 2 pm. Pwyc ($15 sugg). 416-556-6226. Rating: NNNNN
If you were asked to name a pair of Shakespearean lovers, you'd probably first say Romeo and Juliet.
But later in his career, the Bard told the true story of an older couple whose passionate love was so tempestuous that it affected the course of history.
The richness of Antony And Cleopatra lies not just in the verse but also in the overflowing emotions that catch up the lovers and everyone in their lives.
"It's being done everywhere now," says Ruth Madoc-Jones, who's directing the show for Shakespeare in the Rough. "I think that's because the play deals with empire and the extension of national control.
"Bush has talked about instituting a Pax Americana, which echoes Augustus Caesar's Pax Romana. It's easy to see parallels between today and the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago."
But Madoc-Jones thinks it's wrong just to focus on the play's politics.
"There's a truth in that relevance, but to make the piece no more than a morality play indicting the "new world order' is to underappreciate what's beautiful about it: the writing, the imagery, the characters and especially the storytelling.
"Shakespeare is at his best here as a teller of tales, exploring the work's opposites male/female, rational/passionate, rigid/fluid with elegance and skill."
The director points to the two worlds of the play as contradictory forces.
"Rome, as personified by Octavius Caesar, is single-minded and military in nature, intent on building an empire. He brings a forward-looking, intellectual, unchangingly masculine vision to getting his goal.
"Egypt, on the other hand, as personified by Cleopatra, is more robust, indirect, passionate and changeable. I don't mean that she's petulant, but rather absolutely in touch with her emotional life; as her feelings move through her, she allows them to be present."
Caught between them is Antony, the Roman general whose love for the Egyptian queen one of a line of pharaohs means he has a foot in both worlds. In a key way, each of the opposing worlds lays claim to him.
"Antony is a Roman living in Egypt, a soldier in love, a man among men, but someone who ultimately prefers the company of woman," notes Madoc-Jones, whose recent directing credits include The Lab and Dreary And Izzy. "He has difficulty finding solid ground to stand on, though his final loyalty is to Cleopatra.
"What I hear in the play is that male society bereft of female influence is less realized, less alive, and there's a coldness in Caesar that stems from that masculinity. The only woman we meet in Rome is his sister Octavia, and she's treated as material to be bartered.
"Shakespeare realizes that such a world isn't enough, for he gives the final act of the play to Cleopatra. The action slows down after Antony's death. It's as if the playwright gives the Egyptian queen time to die well."
Madoc-Jones has spent months doing what she calls a first-year course in the Mediterranean history of the period, a history crucial in determining the shape of our own culture.
"Some historians see the age as a turning point between the forces of East and West. The 10-year period that included the assassination of Julius Caesar, the fall of the Roman republic and the establishment of the empire saw the victory of western Roman society, which defined who we are today."
Staged in Withrow Park, Antony And Cleopatra will benefit, as do all Shakespeare in the Rough productions, from the park's vistas. Directors can stage scenes that aren't in the text, scenes that provide added richness to the production. For this show, we'll have glimpses of Cleopatra's barge and the decisive sea battle of Actium.
"But this is a play that doesn't require a lot of additions," asserts Madoc-Jones. "It makes a political point, but at its core it's a thrilling love story told in a surprisingly contemporary way, sophisticated and psychologically honest."