Antony and Cleopatra

Too many times, when somebody talks about doing a Shakespeare play, they use the phrase “it’s really difficult.” And to be fair, Shakespeare is always difficult. You need a lot of skill and dedication to perform any of these plays effectively so a modern audience understands and cares about the story. So I usually think it’s a cop-out when somebody says Titus Andronicus is a difficult play, or King John is a difficult play. They are weird, and often absurd, but they are not especially difficult compared to Hamlet or Othello or any other Shakespeare classic.

That being said: Antony and Cleopatra is a difficult fucking play.

Unlike Henry VIII, which is just a bad play.

Aside from just being very long, part of the problem here is all of the politics surrounding a compelling love story.  The politics don’t really mean anything.  They are important as a plot device, sure, since the politics are the forces acting against the Roman General Mark Antony and his royal Egyptian lover, Cleopatra.  But the specifics of those politics are constantly changing, to the point of being confusing.  All we really need to know is that Octavius Caesar is maneuvering to control the world, while his “great competitor” – Antony – just wants to live in peace with Cleopatra.  If you focus too much of the superfluous politics, you lose sight of the actual love story.   If a Shakespeare play ever deserved the golden scissors to edit it down, it’s this play.

But I definitely think it’s worth performing, cut down or otherwise.

It is one of those timeless love stories, after all.

The other big hurdle in producing this play is accepting the fact that the lovers are not stupid.  Everyone else in the world may hate them, and Ceasar himself chides that Antony “is no more manlike than Cleopatra, nor the Queen of Ptolemy more womanly than he.”  But if this story is worth telling, then they need to be deep in deserving love.  That’s the point of the story.  That’s what makes it a tragedy: after long and difficult lives in politics, socializing with and marrying and having children with the people they are supposed to be with, they have finally found a person that they deeply and passionately love because they want to and not because they ought to.  Their duties keep pulling them apart, but violently they are trying to stay together.  When Antony returns from a battle with Caesar, Cleopatra celebrates, “O infinite virtue, comest thou smiling from The world’s great snare uncaught?”  To which the general immediately responds: “My nightingale, we have beat them to their beds.  What, girl! though gray Do something mingle with our younger brown, yet ha’ we A brain that nourishes our nerves, and can get gaol for gaol of youth.” With the wrong casting, these characters do seem like irresponsible fools.  But when you realize that these are aging politicians who are just tired of political maneuvering and all that bullshit, it can become truly touching.  It is honestly beautiful when older people can rediscover a happiness usually reserved for the young, as illustrated by this music video:

But I suppose, even without that age aspect, I have to appreciate the tumultuous love that these characters share.  It’s just a fascinating dynamic!  Cleopatra is very intelligent, “cunning past man’s thought,” but follows her emotions in much of what she does.  When she is upset, she is moved nearly to murder; when she is happy she showers gold down on her servants.  But opposite her is Antony, who operates as more of an intellectual that thinks through a situation instead of feeling.  Cleopatra at one point complains that “He was disposed to mirth; but on the sudden A Roman thought struck him,” while Antony refers to her as “my serpent of old Nile.”  They are different people, and those differences lead to very explosive confrontations between the lovers that are not only dramatically fascinating, but also romantically true to life.

Ah, madmen and the crazy women who love them...

Now, I also saw a pretty horrible production of Antony and Cleopatra in London, where Antony rode Cleopatra onstage like a horse for the first scene and set the mood for a really senseless frat house interpretation of the characters.  They did a really interesting job staging Cleopatra’s suicide, I will admit, where the Clown who brings in the deadly snakes was played by the same guy who played Antony, and when Cleopatra says “Methinks I hear Antony call; I see him rouse himself to praise my noble action,” the actor is actually kissing her to represent the snakes.  Everything else was wretched, but that one part was cool and I would absolutely steal that staging if I did a minimalist production.  However, I don’t know if this play really should be done with minimalism.  That’s a strange statement coming from me of all people, I know, but there is an opulent and even gaudy aspect of Egypt in this play that really demands the full two-level stage like the Rose Theater that this script was written for.

Believe me when I say: it's seen better days.

Specifically, there are the final scenes in the Alexandrian monument where the stage diractions state that Cleopatra and her maids are “Aloft” on the upper level of the stage.  Cleopatra is hiding there because Antony is so mad at her that she fears for her life – so she sends false news that she has killed herself, and Antony is so grief stricken that he then tries to commit suicide himself.  Tragically, he botches the suicide and slowly bleeds out for the rest of Act IV.  Hearing that Cleopatra is not really dead, the Guards carry him to the monument where they actually hoist his body up to where Cleopatra is now hiding from Caesar’s invading army.  The image of the dying general being lifted up to his lover is very powerful in my mind, and not easily represented on a level stage.  Later, Caesar’s soldiers must scale the wall to take Cleopatra hostage, and such an impressive feat will not register with the audience unless the production embraces that spectacle.

Also, a healthy amount of anachronism would be nice.

And since we’re on the subject of how I would direct this play myself, let’s take a moment to recognize all of the apocalyptic imagery in the play.  The world is at war, new threats arise faster than anyone can really keep track of, and the lover’s do not give a damn.  They often say things like “sink Rome” or “turn all to serpents,” and Cleopatra even tells her loyal servant, Charmian, “I’ll give thee leave to play till doomsday” once the queen commits suicide.  The generals that command these wars are described as giants that divide the world itself – making these conflicts effectively world wars.  So, naturally, I’d like to set it in WWI.

Take a minute to absorb the awesomeness of this picture.

Actually, that half century between the American Civil War and World War One is the perfect time to set any Shakespeare play.  It’s the perfect time to set anything, in all honesty.  First off, if you want to “modernize” an older play like Antony and Cleopatra, you have to justify a lot of textual references to swords even though your propmaster gave all the actors modern guns.  Not to fear in the era of World War I and the preceding decades.  There was a surge of modern technology paired with conservative values that allowed the obsolete and the innovative to coexist.  That’s why Steam-punk is such a great genre, because it takes the gritty asthetic of that era and then fully embraces the science fiction of its contemporary writers like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.

Which is how you can get crazy contraptions like giant steam-powered robots.

Before you accuse me of engaging in silly fantasy that is ridiculous and irrelevant to the matter at hand, let’s take some time to look at other legitimate photographs from that period:

And this:

But let’s get back to the subject at hand: Falling in love during an apocalyptic war.  Personally, I would cut the hell out of this play, focus more on the title characters and leave a lot of the politics out – it’s not like the plot will be any more confusing for the audience if they aren’t explained.   All you really need to know is that bad things are happening in the world outside of Egypt, and you can very simply illustrate that point by having this walk onstage:

Or maybe stage some of the battles with this:

And the audience will get the general sense that the world is going to hell.  It also give more weight to the scenes where Romans are trying to settle their differences with peaceful politics, because you don’t need to follow the details of the history to understand how horrible the battles can become.

Seriously, this picture is from 1916 and it looks like it's from a Terminator movie.

And that’s how I see the play.  Antony and Cleopatra find passionate love despite the world falling apart around them – in part because of their love.  It’s interesting to compare this play with its prequel, Julius Caesar, where supernatural spectacle accompanies the murder of a king.  But Antony dies by his own hand, and the new Caesar remarks that “The breaking of so great a thing should make A greater crack: the round world Should have shook lions into civil streets.”  But there is no divine intervention in this play, curiously enough.  The violence is purely the work of humans.

Last one, I promise.

Next week, I’m going to do Macbeth, because I’m actually going to be in a production of that play with New Rock Theater – tickets available here.  In the meantime, let’s marvel at some of the awesome descriptions of Cleopatra in this play: “I saw her once Hop forty paces through the public street; And having lost her breath, she spoke, and panted, That she did make defect perfection And, breathless, power breathe forth.”  But perhaps the most famous description also comes from Antony’s compatriot Enobarbus, who says: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety: other women cloy the appetites they feed; but she makes hungry where most she satisfies: for vilest things Become themselves in her; that the holy priests Bless her when she is riggish.”

I have no excuse for this image, other than the general humorousness of it. Also, you may recognize that actress in the middle from Joss Whedon's Firefly.

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  1. […] play, you need a budget.  I don’t think I felt that way about any Shakespeare play since Antony and Cleopatra, but The Tempest really does require spectacle to be effective.  Illusions are important to the […]



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