Bell Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra

Heather Wallace

If your image of Cleopatra is a kohl-eyed temptress with the ultimate bob cut, be prepared to think again.

Bell Shakespeare director Peter Evans sets the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra in an ancient Rome and Egypt, updated to a sleek and minimalist hotel. Here, games of love, lust and power are played out against a chorus of ever-watching courtiers.

Since Julius Caesar’s assassination and Rome’s civil war, the empire is ruled by three powerful men: Octavius Caesar, Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus. With Antony cavorting in Egypt with his lover Queen Cleopatra, the ambitious Octavius imprisons Lepidus and sets the former allies on a collision course to war.

Image credit: Pierre Toussaint

Catherine McClements, well known from Water Rats, Rush and The Beautiful Lie, takes on the mantle of Cleopatra and explains how she has approached such a well-known role.

How we think of Cleopatra comes as much from pop culture as it does from history. How did you go about finding your own interpretation of such a famous figure?

That image of her is a real weight, but in my own head, I wanted to be free of those shackles and find my own way of becoming her.

Soon after I got the role I went to a Patti Smith concert, and it struck me she is a modern-day Cleopatra. She’s so powerful in how she tackles what we expect of heroes. She has created herself without having to fulfil expectations of what it means to be a woman in the music industry and succeeds on her own terms. I took that idea and built my version of Cleopatra from there.

I’ve even heard your interpretation described as being like Michael Hutchence.

I did laugh when I read that, but it comes back to who our generation sees as its leaders. Rock stars are our heroes. I hope I’m conveying the charisma and sexiness of his stage presence. I’ve tried to capture the capriciousness of someone who is in power and who has given their whole life to power. So it’s not about gender but about power. The play is actually about someone larger than life being stripped of power.

Is this a political play that involves two lovers or a love story set against politics?

I think it’s both political and a romance. Here are these two people who have found a new way of being. Peter has made some cuts to the script so it focusses on a political world, but I still see Cleopatra as a political being who fell in love, and who came undone in every sense by that love.

Credit: Heidrun Lohr

There’s never a moment where Antony and Cleopatra aren’t being overserved in their own world. Peter Evans captures the feeling of an ancient court by having his actors stay on stage the whole time. Sometimes they’re lounging as Egyptians courtiers and sometimes they’re ramrod straight as Roman senators. How does that affect the sense of intimacy between the characters?

The play flows beautifully—even in Shakespeare’s original text it has the largest number of scene changes—yet these just flow together. There’s no abruptness of one scene ending and another starting, and Peter has kept that flow, rather like the movement of water.

There is a wonderful feeling of company in Bell Shakespeare productions. We warm up together in rehearsals and before the show starts, and there’s a feeling of warmth as you enter the stage that comes from the players not the lights.

I absolutely love performing on stage with this cast. I didn’t realise though just how physical it was, I hurt my back about four weeks in and I’m covered in bruises from the really strenuous physical scenes.

You’re no stranger to a classic being updated to a modern setting. You were Tess Du Pont in The Beautiful Lie, a retelling of Anna Karenina. What is the secret to a successful adaptation?

Any adaption has to be sensitive. The producers of The Beautiful Lie were so careful about the story they told and how to redefine a great story for our world. It’s the same with Antony and Cleopatra, it’s important to find the dynamic that backs up against our society.

Peter is interested in the swagger of celebrity and the glamour that’s involved in politics in our world. He is looking at how dangerous that is.

Credit: Heidrun Lohr

the essentials

What: Bell Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra
When: 12-21 April
Where: Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre
Tickets: canberratheatrecentre.com.au

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Heather Wallace

Heather’s career in arts and heritage PR spans 15 years, with highlights including working for Sean Connery at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and promoting Australia’s World Heritage places. Her blog, Myths and Misadventures, (http://mythsandmisadventures.blogspot.com.au/), is about life lessons we can learn from the Romans. You can follow her on Twitter @Missmythology. More about the Author

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