Review: If Romeo and Juliet grew up, they’d be Antony and Cleopatra

Culture Curmudgeon

A moment of flirtatious play between Mark Antony (Cody Nickell) and his Cleopatra (Shirine Babb) in the epic tale of Antony and Cleopatra. On stage at Folger Theatre, October 10 – November 19, 2017. Photo by Teresa Wood.

They’re not as famous as the doomed lovers in “Romeo and Juliet”, but Antony and Cleopatra are a very close second in terms of star-crossed couples. Both are also Shakespeare plays — with the latter an imagining of a torrid love affair between two historic figures. The drama is currently playing at Washington D.C.’s historic Folger Theater, directed by Robert Richmond, through November 19th.

I’ve never really liked “Romeo and Juliet” regardless of how creative its interpretations are. Australian director Baz Luhrmann came very close to impressing me with his 1996 film “Romeo + Juliet”, but I really wanted Leonardo Di Caprio to die much earlier in the film. I found the two characters too overwrought.

Ahmad Coo is a producer and copy editor for the Global Business show on CGTN America. His analysis represents his views alone.Culture Curmudgeon Ahmad Coo

Antony and Cleopatra are much better, for the simple fact that they acted like crazed adults who were happily and raunchily in love. Compared to Romeo and Juliet’s very chaste relationship, the way their older peers related to each other was practically pornographic. Oh Romeo, Oh Romeo, you don’t know what you’re missing.

It also helped that Shirine Babb’s portrayal of Cleopatra was sultry and daring. Who wouldn’t want to be Mark Antony (played by Cody Nickell) in the throes of passion in the arms of such a temptress? But since “Antony and Cleopatra” is a tragedy — we see their relationship eventually come apart at the seams due to events beyond their control.

In the beginning of the play, we see just how in love the pair is — both cocooning in Cleopatra’s pad back in Egypt. Antony is living the decadent life of an emperor in Alexandria and is drunk with power. The passion is palpable between the two, and if you’ve been ever in such a relationship, nothing else matters but the person you love and are lusting for. The more you want them, the more you can’t seem to spend enough time with them. As one of Antony’s closest advisers would say when asked why Antony was so taken by Cleopatra: “She makes hungry, where she most satisfies.”

But Antony and Cleopatra are from two very different worlds. He, a conquering hero from Rome and she, a politically powerful empress from Egypt. Their civilizations don’t like each other much, and this is ultimately what leads to a tragic end. Also, Antony is married and to have an extramarital affair with someone considered outre by his peers was seen as even more scandalous.

Cleopatra (Shirine Babb) gives comfort to her dying Mark Antony (Cody Nickell) in Folger Theatre’s production o Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. On stage October 10 – November 19, 2017. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Things change however when a revolt breaks out in Rome. Antony is torn, but he’s eventually forced to sail home. Upon arriving, he learns that his wife has passed away but it barely registers, as thoughts of Cleopatra occupy his every waking moment. But before he can return to Alexandria to be free to romp around with his beloved Egyptian, he’s forced to marry the sister of a trusted friend to cement their alliance.

Everything goes downhill from there.

Cleopatra flies into a jealous rage upon hearing about Antony’s new bride. In the end, a series of misunderstandings lead to a tragic end.

I think one of core messages of “Antony and Cleopatra” centers on the human tendency to fear the unknown. While the characters don’t resort to overt racial epithets, the prejudices of the play’s conquering Romans lie just beneath the surface. You can easily hear the disdain in the way Antony’s friends talk about Egypt and its population.

But I agree with the director’s remarks that the play’s main message is “loving is better than not having loved at all”. That much is clear at the end of the play when Cleopatra is reunited with Antony. Just like Romeo and Juliet, they too realize that nothing in life matters without their beloved by their side.