A well-thumbed script open and a notebook. Two boxes of Panadol (one open, one spare), two pink apples, a packet of gum and a variety of hair products.
Sitting in his tiny Opera House dressing room, actor Johnny Carr has everything he needs to step on to the stage as Mark Antony, the antihero of Shakespeare’s tragic collision of love and international geopolitics.
He’s packing an impressive beard, too, grown for the role.
“In this production, the Rome we’ve created is very schmick, very polished,” Carr explains, combing it with his fingers. “My Antony is bucking the system. The beard is about not conforming in a world where everyone is quite elegant. He’s meant to be a leader of that world and he’s refused it. He’s walked away from the job at the peak of his career.”
Antony, as most people approaching the play will know, has all but abandoned his role as one of the three governing pillars of the Roman Empire for a life of passion and indolence in Alexandria and the court of Cleopatra, played in this production by Catherine McClements.
“Antony thinks he’s found an enlightened state but to onlookers he’s like a guy who’s sold all his possessions and moved into a commune,” says Carr.
“He’s spoken about as a hero, people describe him as being descended from Hercules, but he’s not that at all. I think there’s something in that idea of not being able to live up to everyone’s expectations, or even if you try to, failing miserably.”
Antony is Carr’s first major Shakespearian role.
These are big sandals to fill.
“Yeah, you wrestle with it and wrestle with it,” Carr says. “I’m sure if you speak to me at the end of the run I’ll still be wrestling with it.”
He avoided watching other portrayals and read historical accounts of his character’s exploits and downfall. “Pete [director Peter Evans] gave us a lot of space for that and there are some great minds in the room all the time, people who know a lot about that world. That was a fantastic resource. But in a lot of ways I put my head in the sand.
“The thing with these classical roles is that there is so much expected. People have ideas of how it should be. But I’m not interested in replicating that. So most of my work was done on the text – as a script and as a score – trying to find the sense in the poetry in the man. Plus, I have a bit of the melancholic in me, so that helps.”
Antony is a man on the downhill slope from the start of the play, Carr says. “There are spikes of vigour or vitality and you think he’s going get up and go again, but he keeps going down. He says goodbye so many times in the text. He’s constantly saying farewell. The play is like one long goodbye.”
Antony and Cleopatra is a reunion production for Carr and McClements. They co-starred in playwright David Greig’s shattering contemporary drama The Events, a production that premiered in 2016, played in the Sydney Festival and toured extensively.
“I think that was really helpful,” Carr says. “You can start at a point that sometimes can take a long time to build if you are going from zero. We did four seasons of The Events so we know how the other works. She is a fantastic artist and she offers so much, she’s constantly spontaneous and fresh, which is perfect because these characters fire each other up.”