Sunday, January 07, 2007

Making History

So far, when I've spoken to people about my "concept" for A&C, there's one idea which I keep reiterating. The scope of the play, I say, is big, and the characters know this. Not only are Antony, Octavian, and Cleopatra aware that their decisions and gestures will have broad and long-term consequences; but even the minor players recognize that they are standing next to the titans of their time -- perhaps of all time. They're making history with every breath.

But how do you communicate this to an audience? The first step is to have the cast deliver lines and actions as though they are literally larger-than-life...but this is also the first mis-step, because it can easily read as the worst sort of Shakespearean ham-acting. You have to distinguish between actors who act like they're the most important people in the universe, and characters who know they're the most important people in the universe. And that's a subtle, tricky distinction.

I've also talked about blocking the play to create tight groups of characters, usually clustered around one of the power players. I'm pretty confident that will help to create the larger-than-lifeness. But will it say anything about history? What I'd really like to do is find a way to suggest that these characters understand their roles in posterity. At some level, conscious or otherwise, they understand that their words & actions will be replayed over and over again for thousands of years, on stages throughout the world. I'm not sure that's something actors can readily communicate.

So it may be time to impose a little business on the play. I've got this great big open stage, and I've got plenty of bodies to fill it why not make those bodies do some things that can, perhaps, elucidate this notion. Like what? Well, one suggestion my wife made (from a production of A&C that she saw in England) was to have a character following the big cheeses around the stage and recording their speeches. In my version, it would have to be a soldier, probably Gallus or Agrippa; and they would be alterately welcomed (by characters like Octavian, who loves his popularity) or begrudged (by Antony, who frequently seems a bit awkward with his status as a living legend).

Another thought I had, which would also play to Octavian's vanity, would be to have him posing for a painting or (more likely) a sculpted bust. I don't know how practical that would be on stage; I guess a vaguely head-shaped prop could be constructed out of papier mache or styrofoam and then padded with clay. Those sorts of high-maintenance props need to have some sort of payoff, however; I wouldn't want to tax my designers with creating a bust and then only use it for half a scene.

A third, very vague, thought: near the end of the play, Cleopatra expresses her horror at the idea that "comedians / Extemporally will stage us and present / Our Alexandrian revels." She's referring specifically to the revels that would accompany her arrival in Rome, if she allows herself to be taken prisoner by Octavian. But she is making a choice about how she will be remembered by history -- not as a caricature of an Egyptian courtesan, but rather as a queen and a goddess. Is there some way that I could build this idea, and this transition, right into the business of the play? I'm imagining some little interlude, an "Antony & Cleopatra" puppet show that Cleo could interrupt, replacing the diminished & ridiculous Cleopatra with her own grand self.

That would be a nice, physical realization of the size & scope theme. It even renders visual Cleo's vision of Antony: "His legs bestrid the ocean" (ie. he's a giant when compared to these paltry little puppets). But where would I fit it in?

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