Josette Bushell-Mingo’s Cleopatra, Royal Exchange, Manchester, 2005; Tarell Alvin McCraney’s ‘radical edit’, Royal Shakespeare Company, The Public and GableStage, 2013
Carol Chillington Rutter
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.
Glen Byam Shaw, Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, 1953
Carol Chillington Rutter
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.
The woodblock illustration below the title to the 1615 quarto of The Spanish Tragedy captures a sequence of actions that happen across two of the play's scenes but freezes them into a single nightmare image of horror. A hundred years later, however, the flower-dealing woman in white is once again the object of horror, the tropes originating with Isabella and inherited by Ophelia now reconfigured by the gothic imagination. This chapter gives her Doing Kyd's last word, an epilogue that also serves as a prologue for the continuing cultural work that Isabella, and The Spanish Tragedy, perform sometimes incognito, sometimes in her and its own right, in subsequent theatre. When he's casting Soliman and Perseda, Hieronimo asks rhetorically: 'what's a play without a woman in it?'.