Thursday, June 29, 2006

Shows to See

I have realized that reserving this blog exclusively for content which pertains to Antony & Cleopatra isn't paying off. My A&C brainstorms aren't coming often enough to justify its existence. And besides, I chose the name "Stage Whispers" so I could comment on anything theatre related (with particular focus on Walterdale's upcoming season, which has the same name). If I'd wanted an exclusively A&C-related blog, I would have called it "Salad Days."

So here are notes about a couple of other shows in town which anyone who happens to be reading ought to see..

First, the last show of my first season at Walterdale is running until July 8...and it's fantastic! Actually, it's The Fantasticks, the smash hit Broadway musical that ran for 45 years or some insane length. My beloved Grade 8 Language Arts teacher introduced me to this play, and it feels like a weirdly satisfying personal achievement to have been instrumental in bringing it to life. It's a very sweet, charming, high-spirited and good-hearted play, and this production (directed by Martin Galba) has a lot of lovely touches, including some big show-stopping numbers where so much is going on all over the stage that you want to be able to hit rewind and watch it again.

On the other end of the comic-tragic spectrum, I went to the opening night performance of Free Will Players' Hamlet in Hawrelak Park. John Kirkpatrick plays Hamlet, and he's one of the most energetic and accessible Danes I've seen (and I've seen plenty in my time). I also loved the costume design, especially Julien Arnold's Ghost costume -- he's a bronze statue come to life (well, not quite life...he is a ghost, after all). The first half of the production took H's line "Time is out of joint" literally: the clock above the stage kept spinning and skipping, and several scenes involved "time jumps," with the actors "rewinding" and playing snatches of lines again. It was an inventive device (reminded me of Donnie Darko), and I wish they'd found a way to make use of it in the second half too (imagine sword-fighting done backwards!).

I recommend both shows--although I have to give preference to The Fantasticks, of course, since it's my baby.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Cleopatra's Victory

Here, alas, is another writer whose views of the play I find totally at odds with my own.

Thomas Price's book Dramatic Structure and Meaning in Theatrical Productions attempts the unthinkable: it creates a system with which to classify absolutely every play written. It's written like a logical syllogism; one of the theorems is about Action. I'll translate the theory-speak as we go along:

"The dramatic character's overriding wish [ie. their objective] must be deduced from a realistic assessment of his actions, just as his success or failure at attaining that wish must be determined from his deeds within the larger context of action and counteraction. Errors in dialectical placement will otherwise often result from taking too seriously either the character's own rationalizations for his actions."

Still there? Essentially, Price is saying that deeds speak louder than words. So far I agree; drama is about action, and it's way too easy for a character to talk about accomplishing great things while doing absolutely nothing (Falstaff bounds to mind).

Where Price and I part ways is the section where he uses Cleopatra as an example of a character whose self-justifying language misleads the audience into thinking she's achieved her goal:

"Commentators have ... allowed their judgment of the drama's action to be distorted by the Egyptian queen's eloquence ... [their] approaches to the play are predicated on two unspoken assumptions, namely, that poetical rationalizations for deeds are more important than the deeds themselves, and that the love-death motif automatically infuses the work with an ethos that elevates Cleopatra and her concubine to the status of true martyrs. Slighting the drama's actual events, such critics choose to discount the unromantic Octavius' dialectical victory."

Translation: first, Cleopatra talks big, but all she's really doing is taking the easy way out -- what Price later calls "the least painful possible of suicides." Second, Cleopatra isn't scoring any sort of victory by cheating Octavius of his famous prisoner. But she spins such a great speech that everyone onstage, and everyone in the audience, misses the fact that Octavius wins. Which, according to Price's methodogy, makes him the protagonist of the play.

Why is everyone so determined to take Cleopatra down a peg?

Octavius isn't the protagonist of Antony & Cleopatra. Price can produce as many dialectical studies as he likes, but no audience will ever find themselves rooting for him, no matter how sympathetic the actor who plays him is. And even though he's the last monarch standing, he doesn't win. If his objective were to conquer Egypt, then yes, he gets what he wants. But it's not. His objective is to conquer Cleopatra.

Does Cleopatra take the easy way out? As Price points out, the final scene contains a lot of negotiatons between Cleo and Octavius that make her seem very petty and cowardly. But it's equally possible to read these sequences as a ruse, another one of Cleopatra's mind-games -- not only buying herself time and space but actively persuading Octavius to assume that she will not attempt suicide. Because after all, what suicidal queen would try to hide money from her conqueror?

Cleo's suicide is not a gesture of defeat. She is actively accomplishing the things she has sought throughout the play. It's what Price dryly calls the "love-death ethos" -- Cleo wants to be with Antony forever, in a boundless and eternal expression of their love for one another. The only way to do this is to join him in heaven. But it's even cleverer than that; by choosing to die in a spectacularly memorable fashion (who cares if it's painless or not?), Cleo is assuring her place in the history books -- and denying Octavius a place (as Cleo's conqueror):

CLEO (to the asp): O, couldst thou speak,
That I might hear thee call great Caesar ass

In a nutshell, Cleopatra's objective trumps Octavius'. She wants her love to be immortal. Does she achieve it? The very existence of the play itself says yes. The fact that it's still being produced, the fact that any 10-year-old knows who Cleopatra was (and most 40-year-olds have never heard of Octavius), says yes.

So, rag on Antony all you like. He's got plenty of shortcomings. But lay off Cleopatra, already! Geez!

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Masks of A&C

Marvin Rosenberg was an esteemed Shakespeare scholar with an unusual critical approach: his series of "Masks" books ("The Masks of Hamlet," "The Masks of Macbeth," etc.) compiled an impressive range of commentary on production techniques and staging approaches. Instead of speculating about the "ideal production" (as far too many scholars do), Rosenberg beat the bushes until he found a sufficiently broad sampling of moments from actual productions. Only once he had this stage-based evidence in hand did he start to speculate about what Shakespeare might have intended with any given play, scene, character, or line.

For a director, these books are a gold mine of great staging ideas, ripe for the stealing. I made good use of "The Masks of King Lear" in last season's production, and I was disappointed that Rosenberg had died without publishing a volume on A&C.

And then, my Shakespeare listserv informed me that "The Masks of Antony & Cleopatra" had just been published posthumously! That's the good news. The bad news is, it's a massive hardcover volume, and it's priced for academics, not for freelance directors like myself. I'll have to poke around local libraries to see if volumes appear soon enough to make any use of them.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Redgrave on Cleopatra

Vanessa Redgrave has, it turns out, played Cleopatra five times, and directed the play at least once. You'd think her insight into the Egyptian queen would be tremendous. Not so much.

She certainly gets off to a good start by making the comparison between Cleo and Elizabeth I; yes, I agree, that's probably what Shakespeare had in mind. The problem is, she seems to get stuck there. She does admit that her "view of Cleopatra is that of an Englishwoman," but surely there must be something more resonant in Cleopatra's character than a portrait of a 400-year-old royal spinster.

Things get worse. She observes that Cleopatra has a strong combination of "sophisticated intelligence and simple, direct humanity"; she thinks that Cleo can see through Antony's political posturing, and knows that he doesn't truly love her; but then she maintains that Cleo loves him anyway, even when he threatens to kill her. This doesn't sound like sophisticated intelligence to me; it sounds like a victim of psychological abuse. Worse yet, Redgrave writes, "She is frail in that she fears violence, and turns her ships away from battle because she is -- a woman."

But where I part company from her entirely is when she describes Cleopatra's suicide as a mundane gesture, achieving "the true nobility of seeing herself as merely a woman." Based on what she's already written, I'm afraid I don't see the nobility of womanhood; but never mind. The fact is, Cleopatra's death transcends humanity; she is becoming immortal, becoming a goddess, and rising, not falling, to meet her dead lover. Her reputation is going to live forever, and she knows it. Her death is not an ending, but a beginning.

Redgrave does include a short final chapter with some useful observations about the political, economic and scientific status of Egypt in Roman times; and she draws a very lovely parallel between Antony's descent into superstition (and the power of superstition to defeat science) and the witch-hunts and persecutions of James I. Not much of that is inherently playable, however. I was hoping for some cogent acting tips beyond "sophisticated intelligence and simple, direct humanity."

If there's one thing which Cleopatra never, ever, ever is, it's SIMPLE!

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Antony's Arc

My mind has been elsewhere (along with my body; I've been on a writing retreat), so I haven't written much lately. But rescripting proceeds apace, and I'm managing to adhere to my own strict requirements of cast size and running time. I start to realize now that I'm worrying far too much about the literal size of armies onstage. Theatrical audiences are trained to understand that one or two soldiers stand in for an army, just like a throne stands for a court, or a man with a ring of keys stands for a prison.

Meanwhile, I've started reading Vanessa Redgrave's thin volume on A&C, which was published by Faber and Faber as part of their "Actors on Shakespeare" series (Redgrave directed A&C, and starred as Cleopatra, in Houston in 1997). Her first, surprising, assertion about Antony's character is that he doesn't love Cleopatra -- at least, not at first:

"The text in my view reveals a man who is fascinated, impressed, knows how to flatter a queen, and is not in love."

Antony's skill in flattery is an extension of the diplomacy which keeps him alive throughout Julius Caesar, and the political manipulation that empowers him to turn the citizens against Brutus in his famous "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech. And it certainly makes sense that the middle-aged general would bring that same acumen with him to Egypt. But does that really mean he doesn't love her?

Assuming that he doesn't, the next question is: why doesn't Cleopatra see this? She is, after all, as much a political animal as he is? I wonder if it's possible that both of them think they are fooling/controlling the other, trying to maintain an emotional distance while drawing their partner deeper into their political webs. If this is the case, Antony breaks free of Cleopatra's control as early as Act One, when he learns of Fulvia's death and decides to return to Rome.

But something happens to him while he's away from Egypt. Redgrave hasn't put her finger on it yet -- and, indeed, I think Shakespeare is a bit cagey about exactly when it happens. But clearly, Antony finds it impossible to get Cleopatra out of his mind, and at some point he must realize that he really is in love with her, after all. It is this movement that provokes Antony's doubts and causes his missteps in later acts.

Redgrave writes that Act III, Scene vii "illustrates the change that has come upon him -- from his confidence in Athens in the preparations for the coming war (in Act III, scene iv) to his present doubts surrounding the outcome of the battle." Is it a superstitious fear of Octavius that causes this (he does comment on Octavius's daunting luck)? Or an aging man's fear of youth? Or is it because he knows that he can no longer wage war with the fearlessness that soldiers need -- because he now has something to lose, or something to go back to when the fight is over?

If I had to pick a moment when his eyes are opened to his love for Cleopatra, it would be Act II, scene vii -- the remarkable banquet scene aboard Pompey's galley. Cleopatra isn't mentioned in this scene, but Antony must surely feel her absence at a feast of such bacchanalian intensity. As Lepidus quizzes him about Egyptian geography and zoology, he responds in riddles that seem to evoke his inability to articulate (or forget) Cleopatra's greatness:

LEPIDUS: What manner of thing is your crocodile?
ANTONY: It is shaped, sir, like itself, and it is as broad as it hath breadth. It is just so high as it is, and moves with its own organs. It lives by that which nourisheth it, and the elements once out of it, it transmigrates.
LEPIDUS: What colour is it of?
ANTONY: Of its own colour too.
LEPIDUS: 'Tis a strange serpent.
ANTONY: 'Tis so, and the tears of it are wet.