‘Antony and Cleopatra’ humanizes history

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Photo by Stephanie Addenbrooke.

This week, a group of students will stage one of William Shakespeare’s most well-known tragedies — a story of love and war in the ancient world.

“Antony and Cleopatra” opens tomorrow night at the Morse-Stiles Crescent Theater. Directed by Gabrielle Hoyt-Disick ’15, the play centers on the ill-fated romance between the title characters as they struggle to fulfill their duties to their nations while keeping their commitment to each other. Hoyt-Disick said this production highlights the relationship between individuals’ behavior in private versus public life.

“The entire play is about having an audience,” Hoyt-Disick said. “There is a sense that this show is happening only because an audience is there to watch it.”

Producer Katharine Pincus ’15 said the production emphasizes the performative aspect of everyday life, especially in politics, where some people go to great lengths to hide their true feelings behind a seemingly composed exterior. She recalled a scene that sees the characters Antony, Enobarbus, Octavian and Lepidus engage in a tense stand-off, where no one wants to lose control of his or her emotions because each is trying to play the “political game.”

Hoyt-Disick added that this performative element reveals irreconcilable differences between many of the characters. Cleopatra, she explained, does not rigidly distinguish between public and private realms because she uses sexuality as a political tool and political actions as a means of furthering her romantic relationship with Antony. But in Rome, Hoyt-Disick noted, an individual’s intimate and public lives are meant to be kept separate.

Hoyt-Disick said she believes that the play’s two main conflicts arise from the characters’ inability to balance their public and private lives. She explained that Antony’s devotion to Cleopatra causes him to make poor decisions in handling the civil turmoil that Rome was experiencing at the time, which ultimately leads to his clashes with Octavian. At the same time, Hoyt-Disick added, Cleopatra is essentially a deity to the Egyptians and must choose between protecting the welfare of her people and assisting Antony in his endeavors.

“The saddest parts of the play are when we see Cleopatra put aside her love for Antony in order to help her country,” she noted.

Pincus said that because the story behind the play is very well-known, audience members should try to empathize with the characters’ decisions throughout the show rather than simply wait to see the tragic ending. There is some inevitable force of history that the characters cannot escape, Hoyt-Disick added, noting that she thinks the play is more about how they try to escape nonetheless.

Otis Blum ’15, who plays Antony’s close friend Enobarbus, said several aspects of the play lead the audience to believe that the plotline may end well for the main characters, which makes the ending more powerful. He explained that Antony’s charismatic speeches are able to convince audience members to believe that his forces will ultimately triumph, even when it is clear that he has no chance of victory.

“Even when you know the ending, you still find yourself surprised by it because you feel hopeful leading up to it,” he noted. “That’s the mark of any great tragedy.”

Blum said he thinks that while the play’s tragic element largely consists of Antony and Cleopatra’s downfall, the end of Antony’s friendship with Enobarbus is equally unfortunate. Blum explains that Enobarbus greatly respects Antony but is forced to watch in silence as Antony’s judgment becomes increasingly clouded as a result of his relationship with Cleopatra.

Blum recalled a scene that occurs after the historical Battle of Actium, where Antony is defeated and has no hope of winning the war. After talking to Cleopatra, Antony becomes delusional and gives an impassioned speech about how his forces can still win. Enobarbus then leaves Antony’s army, certain that his former best friend has lost his wits. Enobarbus sees the tragic ending before any of the other characters do, Blum noted.

Pincus and Hoyt-Disick said they believe the play draws a great deal of emotional power from its dramatization of well-known historical figures as opposed to completely fictional characters. Blum added that this blending of history and drama humanizes historical figures in a way that allows audience members to better empathize with these people’s actions than if one were to read about them in a textbook.

“When you study Marc Antony and ancient Rome in class, you would wonder at how he could have let his romantic relationship lead to his demise,” Blum said. “It all makes more sense when you see them as real people who are in love.”

Performances of “Antony and Cleopatra” will run through Feb. 1.

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