‘Wogs exit nearest way’
Glen Byam Shaw, Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, 1953
in Antony and Cleopatra
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With Shaw’s 1953 production – the first post-war English production – at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, the modern history of Antony and Cleopatra in performance begins. Informed by Shaw’s wartime experiences and by a close reading of the notebooks he kept while still in uniform in preparation for a future production, this chapter sees Shaw’s Antony and Cleopatra as a product of both residual colonialism and a global war that set civilisations in genocidal conflict – not unlike Rome v. Egypt ending in Actium. Designed by Margaret Harris (of the Motley team) to astonish drab post-war Britain with costumes in colours that made spectators gasp and on a set that allowed the play’s action to move uninterrupted on a stage uncluttered with superfluous ‘stuff’, this production put a star couple at its centre – Peggy Ashcroft and Michael Redgrave – and surrounded them with a Orientalist retinue that the promptbook described collectively as ‘wogs’. The tragedy of this Antony and Cleopatra was Antony’s: Redgrave played the ruin of a magnificent soldier. The triumph was Cleopatra’s: Ashcroft’s queen played one last seduction – that ended making an ‘ass’ of Caesar.

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