Twenty years ago, Tina Packer directed Antony and Cleopatra for the outdoor playing space at Lenox-based Shakespeare & Company. “With a cast of 50 and marching Roman armies,” she recalls. “What I discovered was that it would be better to do a production in a smaller space and concentrate on what people are saying. If you get obsessed with who’s saying what about whom, you lose your way — like the case of President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.”
This time Packer returns to Shakespeare’s far-flung tragedy as Cleopatra, with Nigel Gore as her Antony. Michael Hammond directs the staging — in which 12 actors play all of the characters — in the company’s indoor Founders’ Theater. “Cleopatra is an incredible role,” says Packer. “As soon as I realized I wanted to get back on stage before it was too late, I wanted to be an all-out woman, not someone’s granny. Shakespeare has definitely written a play about middle-aged lovers.” If so, and if 60+ is indeed the new 40, Packer fits the Bard’s intention.
Co-founder and artistic director of Shakespeare & Company since 1978, the British-born Packer had for years cut back on her acting to direct. Then last summer she appeared at S&C in Hamlet, playing Gertrude to her son Jason Asprey’s melancholy Dane. It was a return to her roots. Trained in London at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Packer appeared in numerous productions in London’s West End, at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and for the BBC before coming to the United States in the 1970s.
According to Packer, Shakespeare takes the historical facts about Roman general Marc Antony and Cleopatra, the last pharaoh of Egypt, and fashions a “heavily political” play in which the conflict between Antony and Octavius Caesar for control of the Roman Empire is wrapped into the legendary affair of “Antony and Cleopatra, two deeply flawed people.”
The off-set scandal surrounding the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton film is just one reminder of the continuing fascination with Cleopatra more than 2000 years after she committed suicide by taking a viper to bed. “There are these questions about Cleopatra,” Packer says. “Did she do away with her brother [her consort on the throne]? Did she rule with her father as well? She has this reputation of being a great seductress, but she had only two or three lovers: Julius Caesar and Antony, who was more promiscuous than she was. We do know that Augustus [Octavius] Caesar had his house historian write after their deaths that she had seduced the upright Roman general. Shakespeare is saying that love is stronger than power and the desire for power.”
Packer believes that Shakespeare’s play is seldom revived because “It’s a huge play in its scope. Shakespeare takes you from the far reaches of Asia to Rome and all over the Mediterranean. The reach of Antony and Cleopatra’s imagination is so vast you have to keep opening your mind.”
ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA | Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble St, Lenox | in rep July 27–September 2 | $10–$57 | 413.637.3353 or www.shakespeare.org