Paul Riopelle discusses the creation of his character for Antony and Cleopatra.
As an actor whose first love has always been Shakespeare, I’ve been inordinately lucky to play some of his greatest protagonists—Romeo, Richard III, Cassius, Benedick, Jaques, even two thrilling cracks at Hamlet. However, Marc Antony has always had a particularly special place in my heart.
Antony in Julius Caesar was the first major Shakespearean role I ever played professionally, and that was over a dozen years ago for Shenandoah Shakespeare (now, the American Shakespeare Center) in Virginia. Ever since that production, it has been a dream of mine to finish the character’s journey by playing Antony in Shakespeare’s sequel, Antony and Cleopatra. Now, over a decade later, I am finally getting the chance.
Through the generosity of a private donor and the tireless work of the board, I have been blessed with the opportunity to take on the role with Pigeon Creek Shakespeare here in Grand Haven. It is the first Equity contract Pigeon Creek has approved in many years, and I feel terribly grateful that they have been willing to go to such lengths to have me on board. This has made my own internal desire to nail the role even more immediate. Now, not only is it a chance to fulfill a personal dream, but to fulfill the enormous trust placed in me by this worthy company.
But getting the job and doing the job are always two different things. The initial delirium of being offered a dream role soon gives way to the sobering responsibility of having to meet the task of performing it. This role, as every role does, comes with its own set of challenges. Antony’s challenges include realizing and embracing the fact that he is not quite the same straightforward hero in Antony and Cleopatra that he is in Julius Caesar. The Antony of the sequel is far more dark, complex, and flawed than the dynamic orator of Julius Caesar. In the prequel, he fights assassins—in the sequel, he fights his own passions and demons.
Of course, this is not altogether an unhappy challenge for the actor. Sure, it’s wonderful to be loved by the audience as Caesar’s heroic avenger in Julius Caesar. But it’s not terribly difficult. Shakespeare makes him the hero, not to mention giving him the grandest words in the play. To paraphrase Charlton Heston, “If you can’t win the audience with Antony’s lines in this play, you shouldn’t do Shakespeare.”
But I have found it equally, if not more gratifying to muck about these past few weeks in the cloudier mysteries of embodying the less-heroic, but far-more-human Antony of Antony and Cleopatra. He’s a pretty fascinating guy—a study in paradoxes and extremes.
The single most powerful man in Rome abandons everything to “play” in Egypt. Passionately in love with Cleopatra, he cannot stop fighting her, wounding her, blaming her. Preoccupied with his Roman honor, he makes choice after choice that leads to disgrace. A brilliant soldier, he takes friends for granted and underestimates enemies. Above all, he is no triumphant, golden-tongued orator, but a deeply flawed man who makes profound mistakes out of hubris, self-indulgence, and his all-consuming passion for Cleopatra.
It is a role that has not been easy to unearth in rehearsals. But the task has been infinitely easier—and altogether joyous—with the help of our truly insightful director, Katherine, and our extremely gifted cast—whose talents, dedication, and professionalism I would rank among the best of those I have ever worked with.
I am hoping that the final result will be a compelling characterization for our audience who, in the end, don’t have to adore Antony (or Cleopatra, for that matter), and probably shouldn’t. The faults and vanities that Shakespeare reveals in their story seem to indicate that even he does not intend them to be so much adored, as wondered at for their epic spirits. They are spirits that contain great weaknesses as well as great strengths—power, pettiness and pride, duty, devotion and dishonor, excess, glory and shame, and above all, passion. These lovers, this story, has it all.
So Friends, Romans, Countrymen, we sincerely hope you’ll join us and lend us your ears. But don’t come expecting the Antony of Julius Caesar…no more Mr. Nice Guy. This Antony is grittier—and he has to be, to woo and war with the likes of Cleopatra. You won’t experience any eloquent orations. But you are in for one hell of a ride.
[Paul Riopelle appears with the Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company courtesy of AEA, Actors' Equity Association, the professional association of actors and stage managers.]