|Antony and Cleopatra|
Director: Jack Clay
It is evident from the reactions to past productions that the effective use of open space is a key factor in successful productions of Antony and Cleopatra. Fortunately, space is one thing available to the Colorado Shakespeare Festival on the outdoor stage of the Mary Rippon Theatre.
Following the death of Julius Caesar, Rome is ruled by a triumvirate made up of Octavius Caesar, Lepidus, and Marc Antony. While Antony spends time in Alexandria at the court of Cleopatra, Pompey's naval forces have threatened to upset the balance of power in the region. In addition, Antony's ambitious wife, Fulvia, has waged petty wars against the other members of the triumvirate. The shocking news of her death forces Antony to return to Rome where the rivalry between Antony and Caesar is calmed by the mediation of Lepidus and the shrewd marriage of Antony to Caesar's sister, Octavia. Upon seeing that the triumvirate has been strengthened, Pompey agrees to a diplomatic settlement of their differences and holds a celebration banquet aboard his flagship.
Antony and Octavia take up residence in Athens. When Octavia returns to Rome to mediate a dispute between her brother and Lepidus, Antony heads east to Cleopatra. Upon hearing of Antony's affront to his sister, Caesar makes preparations for war. Although Antony's military advantage is on land, he accepts Caesar's challenge to a naval battle at Actium, where Cleopatra's fleet can join his own forces. At the height of the battle, Cleopatra unexpectedly turns her royal flagship and flees. In a colossal blunder, Antony chooses to follow her--leading to full-scale retreat.
Caesar sends a messenger to Cleopatra to win her over by flattery and bribery. Antony's continued willingness to subordinate his political and military responsibilities to his infatuation with Cleopatra causes his good friend Enobarbus to desert his cause--only to die of guilt and a broken heart. Even the god Hercules, Antony's most-loved ancestral spirit, abandons the infatuated warrior.
When the Egyptian fleet again deserts at the end of the second day of battle with Caesar, Antony fears that Cleopatra has betrayed him. She flees to the safety of her monument--sending him word that she has committed suicide. The grief-stricken Antony orders his loyal attendant Eros to kill him, too. Rather than make the choice to kill his master or disobey his orders, Eros kills himself. Antony falls on his own sword, wounding himself mortally. When another messenger appears to inform him that Cleopatra is in reality still alive, Antony asks to be taken to her. He dies in the comfort of her embrace.
Caesar visits the monument to promise Cleopatra protection, but she has been warned not to trust him. A rustic clown is allowed to pass Caesar's guards with a basket of figs for the queen. The basket also contains highly poisonous asps that she knows will provide a swift and painless death. After donning her royal regalia, Cleopatra applies the lethal snake to her breast and expires. Caesar orders Antony and Cleopatra entombed side-by-side.
Antony and Cleopatra was probably written in 1607. It was entered into the Stationer's Register (along with Pericles) in 1608 and was published as part of the first folio in 1623. The play's description of the events surrounding the fateful Battle of Actium is based primarily upon Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Life of Marcus Antonius. This historical account is followed with fidelity except for some telescoping of events and simplification of political relationships. Actium took place in September of 31 B.C. in a part of the Ionian Sea two miles off the west coast of Greece, where archeologists recently discovered what they believe to be the remains of Antony's fleet. Their discovery reminds us that while the romantic story of Antony and Cleopatra is fascinating, it is important to remember the story's historical context. It was Antony's defeat at Actium, and the subsequent consolidation of Octavius's power, that marked the end of the Hellenistic Age and the beginning of the Roman Empire.
Shakespearean Tragedy, or a History Play?
Antony and Cleopatra has often been called one of Shakespeare's "problem plays" because it is so difficult to fit into any of the usually accepted formal categories. The heroic stature of the play's central characters and the circumstances of their deaths indicate a play of tragic nature and proportion. Samuel Coleridge felt that it rivaled Macbeth, Lear, Hamlet, and Othello as one of Shakespeare's premiere tragedies. However, many critics have questioned his evaluation and prefer to include it as one of the history plays. Some cite superficial structural arguments, noting the original script's lack of act or scene divisions--rather like a 3,600 line one-act play. They say that the inclusion of many short scenes to serve the play's historical purpose detracts from the lovers' tragic downfall. Some are frustrated by the lack of traditional soliloquies in Antony and Cleopatra and the resultant uncertainty about what sort of attitudes and motivations really drive the famous lovers to make their choices. Only Enobarbus shares his inner thoughts with us in soliloquy, and his sarcastic asides and humorous comments make him a sympathetic figure. Janet Adelman, a well-known authority on Antony and Cleopatra, sees our empathic link with Enobarbus as a natural affinity for a figure of moderation who is caught-up in the world of excess that necessarily surrounds history's most extravagant lovers. His broken-hearted death illustrates for us the futility of too much skepticism and too little imagination. He fails to come to grips with the issue of his own spirituality, a condition that results in an over-identification with the foibles of the high and mighty, rather than an appreciation of the essential immortality that defines the mythology of such noble figures. In spite of legendary power and wealth, Antony and Cleopatra fall victim to the most common of human faults. Antony dies in Cleopatra's arms only after a series of rather unheroic failures in politics, in naval warfare, in communication with his love, and even in the act of suicide itself. Subsequently, Cleopatra's famous suicide represents an act of despair that is difficult to reconcile with her position as the most powerful ruler in the world at that time. What is clear is that Antony and Cleopatra are certainly subject to human failings, but the ambiguity of their motivations makes it difficult for us to judge them. Their emotions are unreliable, changeable, and often acted out in order to produce a desired effect. They are presented to us not as fixed historical legends, but as history's "star actors" striving to achieve legendary station. As critic Michael Goldman says, "Antony and Cleopatra act on each other and on their audiences. They act on and act out their becomingness, striving even in death to become themselves, in both senses of the phrase." When Antony makes an early exit he leaves Cleopatra alone with us to bring the story to a climax as she oversees the spiritual metamorphosis that lies at the elusive emotional center of the play. In one of Shakespeare's most paradoxical speeches, Cleopatra self-consciously bemoans her reputation and foretells her own coming immortality by predicting the theatrical circumstance that occurs simultaneously for us, the audience:
. . . The quick comedians/Extemporally will stage us, and present/Our Alexandrian revels: Antony/Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see/Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness/I' the posture of a whore. [5, 2, 215-20]
In the end, Antony and Cleopatra is not so much an earthy story about personal passions and ambitions as it is an intensely metaphysical tale about the transformation of this essentially base, earthly material into immortal images. This spirituality, coupled with the added influence of the pageantry and spectacle of ancient Rome and Egypt, best explains why Antony and Cleopatra's suffering seems so enigmatic. We view their rarefied world from the outside, like peeping toms eavesdropping on their love affair through the wrong end of the binoculars. The result is a kind of distancing that allows us to judge them more readily while at the same time experiencing less surety about the accuracy of that judgment.
Antony and Cleopatra is assumed to have been produced at least once during Shakespeare's tenure at the Globe theatre, but no confirming documentation has been discovered. The folio script contains many indications of appropriate stage actions, music, and pageantry that relate to performance and to the known stage practices of the King's Men--Shakespeare's company at the Globe. If the play entered in the Stationer's Register in 1608 was completed in 1607, then it is likely that the staging notations refer to performances from 1606. Shakespeare might have been involved personally in the production, and Richard Burbage would have been available to play Antony. Cleopatra would have been played by a boy. John Edmans, who is known to have been particularly effective in such roles, is the likely originator of one of the most complex and sexy roles in Shakespeare. Even given the extraordinary talents of the Elizabethan boy actors, some scholars find it difficult to believe that any of them could successfully play Cleopatra, and argue that this explains the play's nonexistent production history prior to David Garrick's production in 1759, when women could finally tackle one of the most poetic and demanding roles in English drama.
Historically, there are two additional explanations for the dearth of productions of Antony and Cleopatra: 1) The popularity of John Dryden's version of the story, All for Love, is well established. Although formal and stilted by today's standards, post-Restoration audiences favored Dryden's dignified poetry and adherence to neo- classic forms. Even productions of Shakespeare's play were often augmented or "improved" by the interpolation of scenes or dialogue from Dryden; 2) The abandonment of the Elizabethan stage that had facilitated the presentation of multiple locations in rapid-fire sequence also worked against Antony and Cleopatra. The audience's desire to experience the scenic effects made possible by the proscenium stage made the production of a play with some 40 scenes extremely difficult and expensive. As a result, when the play was produced it usually became more spectacle than history, more pageantry than poetry, and for nearly a century the problem of the sheer scale and scope of Antony and Cleopatra kept productions to a minimum.
Even in the era of modern scenic and lighting techniques, the balancing of elements of grandeur with the intimacy of a love story has been a major challenge in Antony and Cleopatra. Success has most often come to productions that used space effectively and simply while relying upon great acting to carry the day. One of the most critically acclaimed productions was the 1947 version starring Katharine Cornell. Reviewers were nearly universal in their praise of her performance and that of Godfrey Tearle as Antony. Most mentioned the spaciousness and grandeur of Leo Kerz's settings and the tasteful costumes created by two designers--Valentina for the women, and John Boyt for the men. The play was performed in an almost uncut version lasting over three hours, but its vitality and movement created an atmosphere of excitement. The supporting cast was noteworthy for the presence of Maureen Stapleton, Charlton Heston and Eli Wallach.
Peter Brook's highly experimental 1978 production at Stratford used his "empty space" theories, rereading the text in the light of Antonin Artaud's "Theatre of Cruelty." He viewed Antony and Cleopatra as a small, intimate, personal play and framed it with movable panels and trestles, using sound and light economically. Alan Howard and Glenda Jackson were praised for their clarity and focus, but Brook was criticized for dealing with the play's scope by eliminating spectacular elements. The result was an intimate production left searching for the grandeur and passion needed to clearly define the play's tragic outlines.
In 1987, Peter Hall directed the play as his last big production at the National Theatre. He left the script intact and paced the scenes at lightning speed, using entrances and exits in nearly every corner of the Olivier theatre. Still, the running time was over four hours. antony Hopkins received good notices for his Antony, but Judi Dench was universally praised for her portrayal of the "infinite variety" of Cleopatra and for her command of the language in the final act, which featured live snakes in bit parts.
Jack Clay's production, which draws inspiration from the haunting juxtapositions of artist Giorgio De Chirico, deals with classical motifs iconically--suspended in the vastness of time and space. By adjusting the spatial relationships between stage and audience, the immensity of the events and characters in Antony and Cleopatra can be counterbalanced with intimacy when required--as in the key scene at the end of the play in which Cleopatra raises Antony to her monument in a physical representation of the ascension to immortality that lies at the thematic center of the play.
The idea of image-building that is so important to the play is reinforced by framing those classical motifs in the clear, elegant lines of Art Deco, resulting in a graceful representation of Rome and Egypt that may suggest parallels with contemporary styles. Correspondingly, costumes are strongly influenced by the flowing lines of Erte's prints in a way that articulates the theatricality of the characters. Cleopatra's final costume--an historically accurate recreation of the robes of the goddess Isis--emphasizes once again the production's central concern with the transformation of the earthly into the immortal.
Adelman, Janet. The Common Liar. New Haven: Yale U P, 1973.
Brooke, C.R. Tucker, ed. Shakespeare's Plutarch. New York: Haskell House, 1966.
Goldman, Michael. Acting and Action in Shakespearean Tragedy. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1985.
Lamb, Margaret. Antony and Cleopatra on the English Stage. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson U P, 1980.