Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Casting Questions

Antony and Cleopatra has 34 major speaking parts: 30 for men, and 4 for women. By "major" I mean anything more signifcant than a nameless Messenger, Servant, Sentry or Guard. Most of the male characters are soldiers, either in Antony's retinue or in Octavius's. Although they seem a bit flat on the page, they have inventive names, many of which are rife with possible interpretation on the part of creative actors and directors: Scarus, Silius, Agrippa, Gallus, Ventidius, Taurus, Eros.

It might be possible to slim the retinues down to two or three. But one of the key (and oft-repeated) themes in the play's second half is Antony's diminishing support. In Acts 3 and 4, it seems like every scene, another member of Antony's army has defected to Octavius. Antony even encourages them to do so, whenever he's depressed or in his cups. Obviously, the only way to dramatize this progress is to start with Antony surrounded by supporters, and then gradually thin out his ranks until he's only got one devoted servant left (Eros, who dies by his side).

I faced a similar casting challenge when I did King Lear. Here, again, Shakespeare starts the king off with 100 knights--a nice round number--and then slims his ranks (in a neat arithmetic reduction) till he's left with only Kent and the Fool (in my production, I also gave him one last knight, called Gargrave).

Is it worth having a gigantic cast, just to get the visual effect of a shifting balance of power? Isn't it enough that Shakespeare tells us, in the lines of the play, that this is happening? But does it really have the same impact, the same thematic resonance, when Antony bewails his drooping fortunes to the same two dudes who have been with him since Act 1?

Maybe some of the early scenes could be done with big puppets, or with silhouettes back-lit upon a screen? Then you could create the impression of a huge throng to cheer Antony on.


Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Language of Dreams

There are a zillion great lines in Antony and Cleopatra, although most of them have not crept into our common language, the way a lot of lines from Hamlet or Macbeth seem to have done. The most flexible expression seems to be Cleopatra's "salad days," as in "My salad days, when I was green in judgment"--which is an unfortunate choice, I think, because it's a really lame pun.

Thanks to T.S. Eliot and
The Waste Land, another line has currency for countless first-year university students: "The chair she sat in, like a burnished throne"... This is the beginning of Enobarbus's splendid description of Cleopatra's triumphant meeting with Antony--a crucial event which has already occurred when the play begins, but which Shakespeare returns us to through Enobarbus's sardonic yet high-poetical reminiscence. It's a glorious speech, and I think I'll find it hard to resist the temptation to stage it as well (the way all film versions inevitably do).

I think my favourite lines, or at least the lines which express the most about the play, is Cleopatra's description of Antony in 5.2 (again, after Antony has died and left the narrative). It comes at a moment of tremendous tension, as Dollabella is trying to persuade Cleopatra to surrender her crown to Octavius Caesar. He's trying to appeal to reason, but Cleopatra is immune. Finally, she turns the conversation to the topic of dreams, and blurts out:

I dream'd there was an Emperor Antony;
O, such another sleep, that I might see
Such another man!

Her description continues over Dollabella's objections:

His legs bestrid the ocean: his rear'd arm
Crested the world: his voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,
There was no winter in't; an autumn 'twas
That grew the more by reaping: his delights
Were dolphin-like; they show'd his back above
The element they lived in: in his livery
Walk'd crowns and crownets; realms and islands were
As plates dropp'd from his pocket.

This is Shakespeare's language at its scintillating best ("His delights / Were dolphin-like"--that's freakin' perfect). But, in addition to the poetry, this moment represents, for me, the central energy of the entire play: using language and imagination (ie. dreams) to transcend reality. Antony never does become an emperor in real life (he is, at best, one-third of a monarch), but Cleopatra dreams that he is larger than a colossus, and that dream ends up having more veracity than anything that happens in real life. Similarly, Antony & Cleopatra's love seems to transcend the clouds, and very nearly overtakes the petty politics of empire-wrangling and civil war. Their love, like their language, is insubstantial--a dream--but it's the thing we cling to when we leave the theatre.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Why A&C?

Harold Bloom calls Antony and Cleopatra the richest of all Shakespeare's plays. That's a very bold claim, but I'm tempted to agree: it has a scale and intensity which only a few of the great tragedies match, it has poetry to die for, it has moments of both high and low comedy, and it has characters that any self-respecting actor would give their eyeteeth to play.

Well, at least two characters, anyway. Or, well, most definitely one. As word has begun to leak out about this proposed production (I'm not very good at keeping secrets), the response from female members of the Walterdale community has been uniform: "Ooh, maybe I could play Cleopatra!" Some of them aren't even really actors!

But I think the reason Cleo is so attractive to actors can also extend to the rest of the play. It's a play about playing roles, a play about characters who sometimes appear human (like a Shylock or a Lear), sometimes larger than life (like Iago or Falstaff), but who are always "on," always acting, always conscious of the presence of an audience.

With a play like Lear, you have to convince yourself that these people on stage are real human beings with pasts and inner lives. It's not exactly difficult--suspension of disbelief and all that--but it sometimes takes a bit of work. A&C is all about performance. You don't have to pretend; you just have to luxuriate. A good production should make the audience feel rich as well--and it should make them feel like they themselves are part of the performance.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Stage Whispers

This is the proposed title, or theme, for the season I have just submitted to Walterdale's board of directors for 2006/2007. I can't divulge all of its secrets just yet (the board has to deliberate, and then royalties must be secured and so on), but since I can't seem to keep my thoughts bottled up about one project, I might as well spill the beans here. There's always the possibility that the board will pass on the project, and all this electronic ink will have spilt in vain. But I feel pretty good about it; I think it's a good match for Walterdale, and a challenge which the community is up to:

Antony and Cleopatra.