AT 35, actor Johnny Carr is rather young to be playing the ageing Marc Antony in Peter Evans’ production of “Antony and Cleopatra” for Bell Shakespeare, but he’s enjoying the challenge.
History records that the real Antony died in 30BC aged 53, making it about a 20-year age difference and Carr, a Victorian College of the Arts graduate with a BA in drama from the University of Newcastle, agrees that the role usually goes to an older actor.
“Antony’s retired in a sense, but in this version I’m playing him as someone who’s walked away from his duties at his peak rather than someone who retired and moved to the countryside,” he says.
“It’s a great character to play.”
He is quick to stress that this Marc Antony is very different from the pin-up boy (“friends Romans and countrymen”) we see in “Julius Caesar”, which incidentally, Bell Shakespeare will bring to town in October.
“His attitude is usually changed and it is a completely different take on the character, a different stage in his life.”
Needless to say, he’ll be closely watching whoever plays the young Antony.
Both plays where he appears are Roman dramas, but in “Julius Caesar”, Antony was a hero; in “Antony and Cleopatra”, he’s a loser.
“When we meet him, he fails to live up to his reputation,” Carr says, noting how a soldier says: “The god Hercules, whom Antony loved… now leaves him.”
“He fails at a lot of things and there’s a sense that he’s from another time…it’s so fun to play,” says Carr.
By contrast, he says, the cool-headed Octavian (later to become Augustus Caesar) represents the new order, but the ageing Marc Antony can’t even fall on his sword, far less hold his liquor.
“There’s a fine line between the tragic and the comic in the play… as we perform it, the comedy is opening up and the tragedy deepens as a result of that, I think.”
Luckily for Carr, his opposite number as Cleopatra is Catherine McClements, with whom he’s sparred onstage before in David Greig’s play “The Events”.
“Catherine’s a powerhouse of an actress, so dynamic and full of life, she’s so fresh and won’t let things go until she completely wrestles with the words, exactly the person you want to play opposite you every night,” he says.
Central to the play is the famous love match implied in the title.
“Antony and Cleopatra inspire each other and something in each other that they haven’t found in anybody else,” Carr says.
She is a hugely intelligent woman and he suspects that Antony is no intellectual match for her. “But they both have a lust for life in terms of the way they ignite each other,” he says.
In Carr’s view, Antony is hugely insecure: “There’s no denying that what he experiences is the uglier side of masculinity, someone who’s losing his way to the point where he asks a soldier of lower rank to help him die… it’s the last threshing of a man on his way out.”
But here’s the strange thing.
“The language is remarkable and some people say it’s the best poetry written in any of Shakespeare’s plays… It’s amazing just to say those words every night and hear how they come out differently every night – the language and the rhythm take over,” says Carr.
“Antony and Cleopatra”, The Playhouse, April 12-21. Bookings to canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700.