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Play-reading report: Antony and Cleopatra, Edinburgh, 9th Oct 2016

We ran the first play-reading of the 2016 / 17 season on Sunday. It’s our fourth year of play-readings, so it was particularly good to welcome a lot of familiar faces coming together again to read more plays, and also good to welcome some new ones too. We had 14 at the play-reading, more than usual, for a reading of Antony and Cleopatra.

When we have more than usual, it makes one focus on the technical side more. The play-readers all connect to Players-Shakespeare.com for their script via a WiFi router. Because we were going to be more than usual, I’d upgraded to BT’s latest and greatest wi-fi router, the BT Smart Hub.

I’d used it for a couple of days before the play-reading and noticed an improvement in performance, but 14 people all requesting the next scene of Antony and Cleopatra at the same time, slowed down response time significantly.

I’m coming to the conclusion that, for most plays, the ideal play-reading group size is somewhere between 7 – 10 people. Most importantly, the plays usually have around 8 principal roles, so every player gets a principal role to play, plus a few minor roles. And the technical problems of wi-fi router performance are manageable. I think we’ll be moving to this smaller group size from now on, selecting the number of players to suit the play.

We had one other disappointment. One of our players takes most of the singing roles for us, and unfortunately he couldn’t make it to the reading.  The composer, Donna Stearns,  had given us a copy of her setting of Boy’s song, Come thou Monarch of the Vine, in A2S7 for us to sing. With no singer, the Monarch of the Vine was spoken 🙁

But what about the play-reading of Antony and Cleopatra? How did that go?

Most readers were pleased to be play-reading again, but they didn’t get much from Antony and Cleopatra. The play-reading didn’t help them ‘get it’. One player suggested that we read it again, and we may well do that, perhaps not with all the same players.

I had similar difficulties when preparing the play for play-reading. For each play I follow a number of steps which usually give me a pretty clear take of what I think the play is about. That gets refined, particularly when my partner and I talk about it, as we proof-read it together.

With Antony and Cleopatra, it was only after my partner went through the play with a tooth-comb, and we watched the BBC Shakespeare Collection production, directed by Jonathan Miller, with Jane Lapotoire as Cleopatra, that I started to feel I’d got some idea of what was going on.

I even wonder if Shakespeare thought audiences might have a problem with the play. One of the main roles in the play, Enobarbus, spends a lot of his time making pointed comments which help to understand what’s going on, either directly to the audience, or to some handy minor players on stage, before he gets into his own sub-plot of betrayal and despair.

I think the core of the problem for a modern audience is that the play has a number of themes which a modern audience finds unsympathetic:

  • the play explores seventeenth century ideas of male and female, which hardly tally with our own ideas.
  • Antony, the tragic hero, suffers from shame, something which seems to have been suppressed in our own time.
  • The conflict between Antony and Caesar involves a struggle between the heroic (Antony) and the Machiavellian (Caesar) – a common Shakespearean theme, but of less interest in our own times.

Let me explore this in more detail.

The play is placed in Egypt, mostly at Cleopatra’s court, and the Roman Empire (Rome; Sicily; Parthia; Athens; etc). Egypt seems to represent the feminine: most of the main Egyptian characters (Cleopatra; Charmain; Iras) are female; some of the males are eunochs; the style of many of the scenes is intuitive. A2S5 and A3S3 show the three women interacting with a messenger in a typical (Elizabethan) feminine manner. The Roman characters, on the other hand are (except Octavia) male, and the emphasis is on politics and rationality. Men are shown as men: getting drunk together (A2S7), curious about foreign parts and lusting after Cleopatra (A2S2). Antony is torn between these two environments of Egypt and Rome.

Antony and Cleopatra is often represented as a great love story, like Romeo and Juliet. I don’t find this so. Cleopatra reminds me of Elizabeth I, using all her feminine charms, wit, and intelligence to remain in power in a male world. Of course she loved Leicester; of course she loved Essex; but when they became a risk to her power, she cut off their heads.

Of course Cleopatra loves Antony, but her priority, in my view, is holding onto her power, and she is willing to negotiate with Caesar to try and achieve that, though not to the extent of betraying Antony, as Elizabeth would have done.

Does Antony love Cleopatra? He seems torn between Egypt and Rome. In A1S2:

These strong Egyptian Fetters I must break,
Or lose myself in dotage.

And at the end of the scene he does just that, and goes to help Caesar and marry Octavia. But then he deserts Octavia and returns to Egypt and Cleopatra, from fear of Caesar.

In the second half of the play, he is forever thinking that Cleopatra is about to betray him to Caesar. He seems like a man ‘in thrall’ to Cleopatra, rather than in love with her.

So we don’t get the uncomplicated love story which perhaps the Taylor and Burton film portrayed. We get a story about people torn between love and power.

Antony’s struggle with Caesar, is a battle between the aging hero (he sees himself as a descendant of Hercules) and the young Machiavellian administrator (Caesar) – not that different to the struggle between Henry IV and Hotspur.

Shame was part of the mechanism in ancient societies to drive the revenge we see in Ancient Greek tragedies. That has been slowly replaced by the rise of law and justice until in the modern age where we no longer barely understand shame. Shame is dangerous – it leads to action – and sets one group against another. And so it is suppressed in our modern society.

At the heart of Antony’s tragedy is shame. At the naval battle between Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra’s fleet turn tail and retreat, and Antony follows her.

It was a mistake to fight Caesar at sea anyway, as Antony’s officers make a point of telling him before the battle.

His loss of his general’s strategic vision leads to him forgetting his martial strengths, and results in shame. As early as A3S11, Antony says:

Hark! The Land bids me tread no more upon’t,
It is ashamed to bear me. Friends, come hither.
I am so lated in the world, that I
Have lost my way for ever.

And in the previous scene, Scarus links this explicitly with Cleopatra – the feminine:

She once being loofed,
The Noble ruin of her Magic, Antony,
Claps on his Sea-wing, and, like a doting Mallard,
Leaving the Fight in height, flies after her.
I never saw an Action of such shame.
Experience, Manhood, Honour, ne’er before
Did violate so itself.

For the rest of the play, Antony’s death is inevitable. But for a modern audience, this shame of the tragic hero is not so clear as it would for an Athens audience of a Greek tragedy, or even a London audience of Antony and Cleopatra, in the C16 / C17.

The fall of a big man is still interesting. The suicide of a powerful woman still grips a modern audience, but Antony and Cleopatra has difficulties for C21 audiences:

  • Antony’s fall brought on by his shame does not move us, in whom shame is suppressed ;
  • Cleopatra’s guile is no longer so attractive
  • The conflict between the individual hero and the administrator or system’s man no longer resonates.

We need to find a new way of interpreting this great play to make it relevant to a modern audience.
Time for another play-reading of Antony and Cleopatra.

Let’s Play!

Richard Forsyth
‘The Director’,
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