Scandal‘s Olivia and Fitz weren’t the first power couple to reign over an empire in it’s waning days. Shakespeare knew that even centuries later, people would gather to watch the drama of love, passion, betrayal and politics with oversized glasses of red wine, which is why he wrote Antony and Cleopatra as a blueprint.
Folger Theatre opens its 2017-2018 season on Tuesday, October 10 with Shakespeare’s historical drama about the love affair between the queen of Egypt and Rome’s most famous soldier. Told in the round, you’ll be able to immerse yourself in the home life of these two lovers in the first-ever Elizabethan venue in North America. Director Robert Richmond (of last season’s highly successful Timon of Athens, Othello and Henry V) directs Cody Nickell and Shirine Babb in the title roles of a play that’s about the story behind the headlines.
“He really wants to see these people at home,” Nickell says. “He wants [the audience] to see into their personal lives.”
Under Richmond’s direction, the text has been stripped back to focus on the love between the titular characters as they struggle to keep their relationship alive in the world of politics, power, war and deception. First performed in 1607, the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra follows the story of the two lovers from the time of the Sicilian revolt to Cleopatra’s suicide. After the assassination of Julius Caeser, Mark Antony finds himself as one of the three rulers of the Roman Empire.
During his rule, Antony falls madly in love with Cleopatra, who is often regarded as one of Shakespeare’s most well-rounded female characters. As their love grows, (historically, the pair had three children), so does the pull of their responsibilities, and the two test where each other’s loyalty lies – with their empires or with one another.
“This is more than just a play about politics,” Nickell says. “This is a play about relationships. This is a play about people trying to connect.”
Folger’s upcoming production marks Babb’s third time playing Cleopatra, and her first time acting alongside Nickell. Her Cleo is a woman that the audience recognizes – ambitious, and scared to admit that she’s vulnerable and in love.
“Everyone usually comes into the theater expecting to see this icon – to see this temptress, this seductress, this woman who is set up to be this kind of siren,” Babb says. “I just wanted to make sure that every time I come to her, I see her first as a woman – not even as a queen.”
Nickell is excited to explore what Antony, the aging Roman soldier, desires.
“I don’t know what power he wants necessarily,” he admits. “‘I wish had the power to just be with her, I wish I could fix the Roman Empire.’ I don’t think he’s got the power that he wants – he’s struggling. What does he really want to do?”
Nickell and Babb bring a playful friendliness to the magnetic relationship of Antony and Cleopatra, one that reminds the audience of the excitement of falling in love, of sharing those small intimate moments – like that first electric touch, or the stomach flips from brushing back your lover’s hair, and that mix of excitement and fear if what is happening is forever, or just for right now.
Ultimately, this stripped down production of Antony and Cleopatra is about “life getting in the way of life,” as Nickell puts it. Over 400 years later, people are still struggling with the same things that Tony and Cleo battled in their personal lives: how to find and keep true love in the face of a civilization destroying itself right in front of our very eyes.
Antony and Cleopatra runs from October 10 to November 19 at Folger Theatre. Tickets are $35-$79. For more information, visit here.
Folger Theatre: 201 East Capitol St. SE, DC; 202-544-7077; www.folger.edu