Carol Chillington Rutter
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Restoring blackness
Josette Bushell-Mingo’s Cleopatra, Royal Exchange, Manchester, 2005; Tarell Alvin McCraney’s ‘radical edit’, Royal Shakespeare Company, The Public and GableStage, 2013
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This chapter concludes a discussion that has run through the whole book, beginning with the observation that Shakespeare wrote Cleopatra as a black queen of Egypt, a representation that subsequent performance in Britain has whited out, most obviously since 1953, even as it has recruited black (or blacked-up) bodies to be placed alongside white Cleopatras as if, by juxtaposition, to annex to her elite body atavistic ideas of orientalism, exoticism, ‘hot’ sexuality. While ‘fringe’ theatres in the UK – the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow; the Hackney Empire; University College’s student theatre; the Royal Exchange, Manchester – installed blackness at the centre of their productions (as did numbers of foreign productions), the power centres of UK Shakespeare production – the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre -- cast a blind eye on Shakespeare’s racial writing in Antony and Cleopatra. That changed in 2013 when the Royal Shakespeare Company commissioned Tarell Alvin McCraney to produce a ‘radical edit’ of the play, which he set on the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue at the time of the 1791 slave rebellion. Relocating the play, McCraney mobilised a black history that re-ignited the race politics and recalculated the costs of regime change written into Shakespeare’s original.

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