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.



cpc said...

Ah. My old creative writing teacher used to say "show, don't tell". But you're correct: showing doesn't have to involve live bodies. Hmmmm.... there's always slides/film/video, too...

Scott Sharplin said...

One of the interesting paradoxes of Shakespeare is that, lacking most of the visual resources of our modern theatre, he was often forced to find creative ways to tell, not show. This dramatic challenge is what yielded most of his great poetry (and is also what makes his plays so hard to adapt into film, a visual medium--but I digress).

In Henry V, the Chorus says, "Since a crooked figure may / Attest, in little place, a million ... let us ... On your imaginary forces work." I disagree with scholars on the meaning of "crooked figure" (they think it means "zero"); this is clearly about one actor playing many parts, or standing in for many people.

"Into a thousand parts divide one man." If I can get this sort of imaginary fission working in the audience's minds, then I shouldn't need puppets or multi-media tricks. I guess I'm just nervous about having two or three ragged spear-carriers tromping across the stage. "That's the greatest army in history?!"