Worcester Telegram & Gazette
July 2017
By Richard Duckett

WORCESTER — After agreeing to take on the role of Cleopatra in the Worcester Shakespeare Company production of “Antony and Cleopatra” opening this week, Emmeline Prior acknowledged that she did have some preconceived ideas about the character.

“When it is a very well known character, you have ideas in your head, but that’s not necessarily how that character will end up on stage,” Prior said. “You have to try and keep it fresh and with an open mind. Definitely with Shakespeare you might interpret a line in a different way, the director another way and the audience a completely different way.”

Prior was being interviewed just at the beginning of the rehearsal process, so there was time for decisions and revisions about how to portray the queen of Egypt and her tragic relationship with Marc Antony.

“She’s a formidable lady, both in Shakespeare’s version and in real life. Very strong but also tempestuous. Obviously very complex. A great pleasure for actors and a great challenge for actors,” Prior said.

Prior has come all the way from England to take on the challenge with the Worcester Shakespeare Company, and “Antony and Cleopatra” will also be the first time she has appeared in a Shakespearean production in America.

“Antony and Cleopatra” will be presented at the Worcester Common Oval in downtown Worcester at 7:30 p.m. July 12 and 13 in two free preview performances, and then officially open its run July 14 at Alternatives Inc. in Whitinsville.

The play will be primarily performed outdoors on the Alternatives Community Plaza. Worcester Shakespeare Company will also stage “Coriolanus” during its summer season. “Coriolanus” opens July 27 and will be held indoors at the Singh Performance Center at Alternatives. Once the second show opens, the two productions will run in repertory. The season is scheduled to close Aug. 22.

There is the possibility that “Antony and Cleopatra” could also be put on for a performance at another venue in Worcester in August, although nothing had been confirmed at the time of writing.

As “Antony and Cleopatra” begins, Mark Antony is one of the three joint leaders (with Octavius Caesar and Lepidus), or triumvirs, who rule the Roman Republic after defeating Brutus and Cassius following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. But the alliance begins to fall apart, and Antony becomes besotted with Cleopatra and spends time away from Rome. In Rome, Octavius tightens his grip on power. Meanwhile, Cleopatra has concerns of her own while dealing with her intense love for Antony.

The setting is “outdoors in the round, traditional, but with a very modern perspective thrown in,” Prior said.

“Antony and Cleopatra” can definitely resonate with a modern audience, Prior said. “Oh yes, totally. Absolutely 100 percent. It doesn’t matter if the setting is ancient Egypt or the 21st century. The themes are love, power and honor, and these themes are universal,” she said.

In an earlier interview, Cobb said he decided that presenting “Antony and Cleopatra” and “Coriolanus” this summer would be “both appropriate and exciting” in these current times.

“Antony and Cleopatra” has “political and sexual political elements, but there are opportunities there for lighter moments” as well, Cobb said.

In “Coriolanus ” the title character (played by Evan Crocker) is a successful Roman military general temperamentally unsuited for popular leadership. Brianna Lynn Naughton directs.

 “We’re not trying to overlay some political opinion,” Cobb said. Rather, it is the plays that are “echoing” themes such as “What is truth? Who is speaking it?”

However, “Antony and Cleopatra” represents both the first time Prior has played the queen of Egypt, and one of the last big Shakespearean roles for women that she will have taken on.

“In the sense that it’s one of the great Shakespearean roles for women, yes,” she said about whether she’s always wanted to play the part. “I’ve done lots of Shakespeare (including Juliet in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and Lady Macbeth). I’ve played a lot of other great roles, but not this role.”

Prior is originally from Cornwall in southwest England, home of the famous outdoor Minack Theatre, literally a theater by the sea, in Porthcurno. She said she acted at Minack “many, many times. They were probably the first plays I did as a kid. When I was at school that was my summertime job.”

She’s gone on to have a long association with Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, a replica of the original Globe Theatre, where she acts and teaches Shakespeare classes to children. She also does a one-woman “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Cobb, a veteran Shakespearean actor and director, worked at the Globe Theatre for 15 years and makes regular return visits. On his latest, he invited Prior to take a trip here.

“I know Mel Cobb from way back,” Prior said.

But not at Shakespeare in the USA.

Does she have any ideas about that to expect?

“I’m going to find that out. That’s really going to be an interesting experience for me,” Prior said.

Performances of “Antony and Cleopatra” (beginning July 14) and “Corliolanus” (in repertory beginning July 27) at Alternatives will be at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, with a 2 p.m. matinee Sundays. Admission is $20, $15 students and seniors, children 12 and younger free with accompanying adult. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.worcestershakespearecompany.org.

Contact Richard Duckett at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @TGRDuckett