'Antony & Cleopatra': Ultimate Power Couple Still Makes Good Drama

Article excerpt

Ask Helena Ruoti how she sees Cleopatra and a cornucopia of adjectives tumble forth -- vivacious, intelligent, educated and cunning.

"She was a Mata Hari type and that's what made her so exciting," says Ruoti, who will play Cleopatra in Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre's season opening production of "Antony & Cleopatra." "She spoke nine languages. She guerillaed her way onto the Actium battlefield. She was so wealthy, so resourceful and (someone) who could speak (directly) to the kings, they wanted to fight on their side."

Set in ancient Rome and Egypt circa 43 B.C. to 30 B.C., Shakespeare's tragedy combines the intrigue of international and interpersonal politics with the sizzle of a passionate romance between two world leaders -- the Roman warrior and statesman Marc Antony and Cleopatra, Egypt's final Pharaoh.

For two millennia both Cleopatra and her liaisons -- first with Julius Caesar and later with Antony -- have occupied the imaginations and work of writers and performers. Though Caesar is dead when "Antony & Cleopatra" begins, he still casts a shadow on the drama.

"What makes them so interesting is that every one of them has their own history," Ruoti says. "And (Cleopatra and Anthony) are so linked. They're like Brangelina. Just imagine: these two people were emperor and empress of half of the known world at this point."

Early historians often reviled her and blamed her for Antony's downfall. Playwrights, filmmakers and actresses have portrayed her as a childlike minx, a shameless temptress, a ruthless depot.

"As one of Shakespeare's women, she is a beautiful blend of regality and beggary," Ruoti says. "She's as smart as Rosalind and as smart and sensual as Juliet -- only grown up."

In the Shakespeare version, Antony calls Cleopatra cunning and Antony's aide extols her infinite variety, Ruoti points out.

"She keeps her entourage off balance because it's difficult to know when she's playing and when she's in earnest. She lives in the moment," Ruoti says. "Her mutability -- that's what makes her funny."

Actresses who include Elizabeth Taylor, Vivian Leigh, Glenda Jackson, Claudette Colbert, Vanessa Redgrave and Dame Judi Dench have risen to the challenge of playing this mythic character.

"It's daunting when you think of it," Ruoti says. "One of the things I've discovered is how active this play is. It's one-to-one. She's manipulating, pushing (Antony's) buttons to get a rise out of people. ... Do is the active word. She's always doing something."

Though Cleopatra was 39 when she died, the character is now most often played by a mature actress, says Ruoti who points out that Dench was 53 when she played Cleopatra to Anthony Hopkins' Antony.

"It was written for mature actors ... looking for their legacy," she says. "This about a mature love. They have been with each other for over 11 years. They finish each other's sentences. ... They are two people on the other side of a partnership together. For that reason, it is usually done by actors on that side of their lives."

Famous film Cleopatras

Elizabeth Taylor in "Cleopatra" (1963)

Vivien Leigh in "Caesar and Cleopatra (1945)

Claudette Colbert in "Cleopatra" (1934)

Theda Bara in "Cleopatra" (1917)

Angelina Jolie is expected to portray Egypt's last queen in a movie schedule for release in 2013, based on Stacy Schiff's biography, "Cleopatra: A Life."

Writers and historians on Cleopatra

George Bernard Shaw on Cleopatra in notes for his play "Caesar and Cleopatra": "The childishness I have ascribed to her, as far as it is childishness of character and not experience, is not a matter of years. ... It is a mistake to suppose that the difference between wisdom and folly has anything to do with the difference between physical age and physical youth. …