As the surrounding constraints and limitations for public gatherings continue in many areas of the world, the Stratford Festival remains in flux for its summer program. Usually at this time tickets would be available for purchase of the Shakespeare hub’s impending season, but as the state of affairs and the limits on even outdoor capacity’s remains firm, it’s unsure what the theatre will be doing. In the meantime, they have streamed the final free taste of their STRATFEST@HOME offerings. With a flourish of regal strength, Stratford’s Antony and Cleopatra is a powerful button on these weeks of streams.
Directed by Gary Griffin with the filming helmed by Barry Avrich, there is a keen divide between the two worlds we encounter in the classic political tragedy, and it is depicted masterfully in both the direction of the two different factions (Egypt and Rome) as well as in how Antony, the man caught in the middle of these nations, is presented. The free nature of Cleopatra’s circle, with an intensity 0f emotion on either end of the spectrum and a relaxed, indulgent air stand in juxtaposition to the straight-laced, stiff upper lip that Caesar and his cabinet display, calculated and displaying all the airs of political bureaucracy. Even looking at Mark Antony as he sits alongside the ruler, sat in his traditional robes but with hair wildly askew next to the harshly combed down Caesar, is a strong image of the dynamics at play.
Yanna McIntosh captivates and holds attention as Cleopatra from her first scene—a depiction of a magnetic ruler with volatile, shifting emotions, but in all things maintains her own honour and the honour of those she cares for. McIntosh breathes believable life into the iconic Egyptian ruler, a playfulness and cleverness that equals her scorn. Ben Carlson’s Caesar, on the other hand, is a marble statue. Formal and precise, a master of composure, we rarely see Carlson show his hand—and it makes his rare moments of fury all the more effective. Truly, McIntosh and Carlson each embody something special as these figures; they hold the very nature of The Empress and The Emperor.
But it is through Geraint Wyn Davies that we are best able to see these differences in energy between these two realms. Holding tightly to an ever-slipping sense of self and honour, Davies embodies both the stoicism of Rome and the evocative emotion of Egypt that the production builds up. Caught in between that which he pledged his life to and the freedom that his love for Cleopatra offers him, Davies wrestles with his station subtly throughout, showing him at odds with almost all around him, and this turmoil beginning to erupt towards the end. It is only when Antony has seemed to have lost everything that we see a moment of true, sober peace within him, and it is a beautifully sustained note in the sonata Davies conjures.
Stratford’s Antony and Cleopatra does great justice to not only the Shakespearean classic but to the historical figures themselves. It is with great difficulty that true life is breathed into statuesque icons and their humanity remembered. Through the lens honed for this production, the emotion, fragility, hope, and folly of these political titans sit at the forefront in a stirring light. And with luck, the Stratford Festival will be able to craft even more gems such as this for their summer season.