The Folger Shakespeare Library is the perfect place to learn about William Shakespeare or see a traditional Shakespearean play. Its extensive collection of works and rotating exhibits immerses guests in all things Shakespeare. Kicking off its 2017-18 season, the Folger Theatre presents its first fall production, Shakespeare’s epic tragedy “Antony and Cleopatra.”
Directed by Robert Richmond, an associate artist at the theater who has directed past productions including “Twelfth Night” and “Othello,” “Antony and Cleopatra” features Shirine Babb as the powerful queen Cleopatra and Cody Nickell as Rome’s love-stricken Mark Antony.
The time-honored play tells the tragic story of Cleopatra and her lover, Antony, who finds himself torn between his duties to the Roman Empire and his relationship with the beautiful Egyptian Pharaoh. The play touches on the themes of power, jealousy, love and loss.
The Folger Theatre’s rendition of “Antony and Cleopatra” presents a creative take on a Shakespearean classic, with an unconventional stage setup. The play unfolds on a rotating circular stage, which holds the audience’s attention for the entirety of the play. The theater-in-the-round setup is designed to bring the story’s private love matters to the public eye and make the play’s public political affairs appear more private.
As the play shifts from Rome to Egypt, the lighting and staging effects similarly reflect this change in setting. The discussions between the central Roman political alliance, or triumvirate, comprised of Marcus Lepidus, Julius Caesar and Antony, are accompanied by dim lighting, echoing voices and a rotating stage with each man sitting on a wooden chair. The reverse characterized Antony and Cleopatra’s love scenes in Egypt: The lighting was ethereal, the costumes were light and airy and the scene revolved around Cleopatra’s lavish bed fixed in the center of the stage.
This production of “Antony and Cleopatra” focuses heavily on the romantic aspect of the story: Richmond intentionally brings the love scenes to the forefront of his viewers’ attention and highlights Antony’s internal struggles and his relationship with Cleopatra. Whereas some interpretations of “Antony and Cleopatra” emphasize the pair’s political relationship, Richmond dedicates more of his production to developing a passionate romance between the two lovers. He succeeds in portraying Antony and Cleopatra as a genuine couple, whose purpose is to solidify their relationship no matter what is at stake.
The actors fully immersed themselves in the throes of passion throughout the narrative. Nickell brought Shakespeare’s multifaceted character to life, committing himself to the part in every way possible. Antony’s emotional struggle was evident as he left his beloved Cleopatra for Rome. The audience held onto each lingering kiss he laid on Cleopatra’s lips, lamented when he was separated from her by seas and shared in his grief when he believed her dead.
Babb was powerful in her own right. She commanded the stage with her resounding voice and confident stage presence. However, her affection for Antony was not as apparent as was his. Babb certainly exuded passion, but it felt as though Cleopatra’s political struggles weighed more heavily on her than her feelings for Antony did — Babb did not seem as consumed by love. Audience members may find themselves longing for more romantic passion on Babb’s part and searching for the all-consuming love witnessed in Nickell’s character.
But Cleopatra is a complex character, and Babb does a superb job in tackling her multifaceted nature. She deserves credit for handling a role that encompasses equal parts emotion and political poise.
Richmond directed this play so that Cleopatra’s political ties were not as prevalent in the beginning acts, wherein she played an infatuated lover. The sudden focus on her political sway later in the production seemed abrupt. Yet, it is fitting with the inconstancy and transience of Shakespeare’s tragedy to layer the plot with complexity as it progresses. Richmond expertly weaves these dramatic elements characteristic of Shakespeare into his version of “Antony and Cleopatra.”
Folger Theater’s showing of “Antony and Cleopatra” is the perfect production for Shakespeare fanatics and hopeless romantics alike. The average movie theater-goer would enjoy this play as well for its timeless love story and evocative storyline. Not only does Richmond make Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” accessible to a wide audience, but he does so with a captivating, cleverly designed setup. Without straying too far from the integrity of the original play, Richmond and his actors shed a fresh light on the Shakespearean classic.
“Antony and Cleopatra” is running at the Folger Theatre until Nov. 19. Ticket prices range from $35 to $79 and can be purchased through the Folger Theatre’s website.