Antony and Cleopatra
Season 07-08 Season

Her Infinite Variety

AKIVA FOX, LITERARY ASSOCIATE

Suzanne Bertish Takes on Cleopatra

Shakespeare’s Egyptian queen Cleopatra, the ultimate theatrical chameleon, demands an actress with the versatility to match. Suzanne Bertish, who comes to the Shakespeare Theatre Company this spring to play Cleopatra, has one of the most varied and surprising careers imaginable, and she brings that experience to playing one of Shakespeare’s most thrilling roles. “Some people say she’s a different character in every scene,” says Bertish, “and the challenge is to tie all these characters that burst out of her into one person.”
 
Bertish’s lifelong love affair with classic theatre began early. “I’ve spent a lot of my working life in period clothes,” she laughs. “When I was a kid, I used to dress up by taking the sheets off the bed.” But her journey to Cleopatra began in the proving ground of the English repertory system. At a young age, she made her debut at the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow, Scotland (at the recommendation of her friend, the actor Tim Curry). “I played all these great classical roles when I was 21, 22 and 23,” she remembers, “Lady Macbeth, The Duchess of Malfi, Volumnia in Coriolanus.”
 
Her success in Scotland led to an invitation to the Old Vic Theatre, where she joined a company comprising some of England’s best young actors. In addition to playing Cleopatra’s handmaiden Iras in Antony and Cleopatra, she starred as Ophelia opposite Derek Jacobi’s Hamlet—a “rather frisky” performance that inspired a 15-year-old Kenneth Branagh to take up acting. Most exciting to the young actress was a subsequent tour through the Middle East: “We went to Turkey, Egypt, and to Iran only 15 months before the revolution.”
 
When Bertish returned home from the tour, she was invited by Trevor Nunn to join the Royal Shakespeare Company. She played Desdemona in Othello, Olivia in Twelfth Night and Masha in Chekhov’s Three Sisters to great acclaim, but it was an ensemble piece that made her career: a now-legendary adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby that also featured Roger Rees, Ben Kingsley and Timothy Spall. “People were lining up around the block” in London, Bertish remembers, and the company eventually brought the play to New York for four sold-out months.
 
Since that triumphant run, Bertish has returned to work in America often. She has performed leading roles in new plays at the Manhattan Theatre Club, played opposite Al Pacino in Oscar Wilde’s Salome, and received a Tony Award nomination for The Molière Comedies. But she has always felt a strong kinship with America; her mother is American and often brought her back to visit family. “I know I sound English,” she says warmly, “but I also feel American.” And she relishes playing for American audiences again. “It has always been an ambition of mine to perform Shakespeare in this country,” she says. “There’s a deep love of Shakespeare here, a passion, whereas in England I think people are a bit jaded about it.”
 
Bertish has continued to play classic roles in England, including parts in the National Theatre’s King Lear opposite Anthony Hopkins and The Cherry Orchard opposite Vanessa and Corin Redgrave. But when Michael Kahn offered her the opportunity to play Cleopatra in Washington, she jumped at the chance. She recently acted in the HBO series Rome and felt very comfortable in the world of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. More importantly, however, she realized that Cleopatra is a part unmatched for its complexity, the role of a lifetime. Above all, Bertish finds her both wildly theatrical and deeply human: “Her self-delusion in love is something that exists in all of us. This is her last great love, and she knows it.”
 
And Bertish believes that these plays about republic and empire contain enduring lessons for our own time. “I remember looking down on the ruins of the Forum in Rome,” she says, “and thinking, ‘What happened? And what happened to the people that made that extraordinary civilization in Egypt?’ Then you start to think, ‘And where are we going now?’ So if these plays can have reverberations and make people think, that’s why we should be doing theatre.”
 
Akiva Fox, Literary Associate

4/15/2008

 

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