This book writes a performance history of Antony and Cleopatra from 1606 to 2018. After considering the particular challenges Shakespeare’s script offers any actors, directors or designers who stage it, the book looks in detail at Antony and Cleopatra on the Jacobean stage and then at Dryden’s All for Love (the play that replaced Shakespeare’s from the Restoration to 1849). Fast-forwarding across a number of Victorian adaptations and early twentieth century English productions, it arrives at 1953, when, directed by Glen Byam Shaw at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre with Peggy Ashcroft as Cleopatra and Michael Redgrave as Antony, the play’s modern performance history begins. Thereafter, chapters offer in-depth analyses of fifteen productions by (among others) the Royal Shakespeare Company, Citizens’ Theatre Glasgow, Northern Broadsides, Berliner Ensemble and Toneelgroep Amsterdam in five countries and three languages. Combining close readings of theatre records – promptbooks, stage managers’ reports, costume bibles, reviews – with deep historical contextualisation, it sees how, and what, this play has meant each time it has brought its thoughts on power, race, masculinity, regime change, exoticism, love, dotage and delinquency into alignment with a new present. It ends seeing Shakespeare’s black Cleopatra restored to the English stage. Tragedy, comedy, history, farce: this book demonstrates that in performance Antony and Cleopatra is all four.
The play the First Folio styles The third Part of Henry the Sixt generated the earliest surviving notice of William Shakespeare in performance, a review by Robert Greene, writing in A Groats-worth of Witte. Greene's 'Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide' parodies a line that comes four scenes into 3 Henry VI, at the death of Richard, Duke of York. Greene crafts his analogy to associate the tiger with the crow, the woman with the player, a move that rhetorically slides the woman's monstrous violation of gender off on to the player, troping other violence done upon the order of things. Greene's metaphors degrade Shakespeare to a woman and cast him as an aspiring 'upstart', a 'wannabe' university man. Greene testifies to the power of the theatrical moment that etched upon his unwilling spectatorship and memory, to the extent even of inserting itself into his own writerly performance space.
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?'.
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.
Taking the measure of Antony and Cleopatra, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1972, 1978, 1982
Carol Chillington Rutter
Opening with a question about the scale of Shakespeare’s play, this chapter looks at three seminal productions of Antony and Cleopatra at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre: in 1972 Trevor Nunn (with Janet Suzman and Richard Johnson as his principals) scaled it to epic proportions; in 1978 Peter Brook re-sized it around Glenda Jackson and Alan Howard for intimacy; in 1982 Adrian Noble made it a chamber play, putting Helen Mirren and Michael Gambon on a postage-stamp-sized stage that nevertheless imagined a space ‘past the size of dreaming’. Each of these productions is contextualised to its cultural moment: the anti-Vietnam student protest and women’s liberation movements in 1972; the reassigning of global politics to the domestic in 1978; the challenging of institutional policies in 1982.
The Citizens’ Theatre (Glasgow), 1972, and Northern Broadsides (Halifax), 1995
Carol Chillington Rutter
Taking a cue from Cleopatra’s nightmare vision of being taken captive to Rome where the ‘quick comedians’ will ‘stage’ her, some ‘squeaking … boy’ making a travesty of her ‘greatness’, this chapter looks first at the burlesque tradition from F. C. Burnand to the Carry On films of remaking Antony and Cleopatra as farce. Then it looks in detail at two straight but seriously unconventional British productions that reframed the play’s meaning by staging alternative interpretations to those currently on offer at the Royal Shakespeare Company. At the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, Giles Havergal drew on the theatre’s history, location and popular appeal to make a radical adaptation of Shakespeare’s script that used only seven actors and cross-cast Jonathan Kent as Cleopatra in what reviewers called the ‘Zulu’ Antony and Cleopatra. In Halifax, Barrie Rutter continued his campaign to claim Shakespeare for the Northern voice, opening Northern Broadsides’ production with a burlesque scene played by a ‘squeaking’ Cleopatra that gave way to a serious staging in modern dress whose most celebrated quality was the electrifying delivery of Shakespeare’s writing.
Peter Hall, Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, 1987
Carol Chillington Rutter
Casting Judi Dench and Anthony Hopkins as his star couple, using an uncut text (taken not from any modern edition of Antony and Cleopatra but from the 1623 Folio), and referring to Harley Granville-Barker’s 1930 Prefaces to Shakespeare as his principal critical source, Peter Hall eschewed the orientalism of every production of the play on the English stage since 1953 to make this a very English Antony and Cleopatra, not least in his all-white casting, his near-religious attention to the text and his ‘iambic fundamentalist’ demands for the ‘correct’ speaking of the verse. Some reviewers heard the ‘true sound of Shakespeare’ in Hall’s large-scale production; others thought Hall’s ‘sumptuous nostalgia for the grand style’ lost something vital to Shakespeare – the rough, the raw, the immediate. All agreed that Dench and Hopkins gave performances of such ‘searing, wounded intimacy’ that they would ‘take you by the throat even played on a windy day on a Brighton pier’.
One of the (reconstructed) Globe’s early attempts at simulating ‘authentic’ Jacobean performance conditions – its so-called ‘original practices Shakespeare’ – this production put an ‘authentic’ all-male cast on stage in ‘authentic’ early modern costumes. This chapter interrogates the premise of authenticity and critiques performances, particularly Mark Rylance’s as Cleopatra, that registered both textual and semiotic incoherence. If the aim of reconstructing Shakespeare’s Globe was to provide ‘a machine to test … original staging’, what, this chapter wonders, did this production teach audiences about Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra? Answering, it proposes that the great discovery of ‘original practices staging’ was to understand this play as a comedy and Cleopatra as a clown.
Observing that after Shakespeare’s death, while Antony and Cleopatra survived in print, it disappeared from the English stage for the next 150 years, this chapter looks in detail at the play that replaced it on the Restoration stage: John Dryden’s All for Love, or The World Well Lost. It reads All for Love as a domestic drama for a formally correct but licentious age that conducts a psychomachia across a series of two-handed ‘debate scenes’: will Antony be summoned back to Roman duty – or will he remain tangled in the captivating toils of the Egyptian queen? The chapter then fast-forwards across a number of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century productions that all used Dryden’s text before Shakespeare’s, Dryden-free, was returned to the stage in 1849, just at the moment that ‘Egyptomania’ hit England and when spectacular Shakespeare, Shakespeare performed with eye-popping scenes and lavish costuming, was the rage. The chapter ends surveying twentieth-century productions of the play up to 1931, seeing earlier theatrical extravaganzas that necessitated deep textual cuts and re-ordering of Shakespeare’s scenes giving way, under the direction of Harley Granville Barker, to Shakespeare restored, with all his words and scenes, mostly uncut, played in the right order.