David Stuart Davies looks at the novel behind the new BBC adaptation [This article contains ...
We were both looking forward to this. The stars, Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo, had just won the Evening Standard best actor and best actress awards for their performances as the aging lovers. We might have blenched slightly when we discovered that the play had a three and a half hour running time; so Sally took sandwiches, Stefania took fig rolls. We settled in our seats, ready to enjoy ourselves.
And at once it went wrong: a tableau of Cleopatra’s
dead body (as if we didn’t all know how it ends) with the healing words that
characteristically close a Shakespearean tragedy being intoned at its opening.
Shakespeare knew a bit about constructing plays: he never starts at the end,
and he never starts with a big moment. His opening has two followers of
Antony’s discussing their great general’s decline into a ‘dotage’ (it is the
fourth word of the play), misled, as they unproblematically see it, by ‘a tawny
front’ and ‘a gipsy’s lust’. Theirs is our first account of Cleopatra just as
it is our first account of Antony, in a play which pivots on a fine awareness
of the misuse of language. Philo’s misogynistic and racist language is a Roman
soldier’s deliberate put-down of a woman considerably more powerful than he is.
This is a play all about how people are seen, mis-seen, act themselves out to
others, and – occasionally – truly see themselves. It has theatricality at its
centre, and much of the drama it presents, especially the central one between
its two principals, is stagy and overblown, like their language. But also at
the play’s centre is the true and proper human drama and tragedy behind that.
It is vital to a good production that it catches that private human fragility
behind the bombast, otherwise these characters can’t matter to us.
It’s a difficult task, certainly. There’s plenty of evidence in the play to support Philo’s view of Cleopatra, as there is to support the view of Antony as misled by his ‘dotage’ into a folie à deux. The play even contains its own self-referential warning, when Cleopatra, close to the play’s and her own end, has a sudden understanding that hers and Antony’s story could be turned into a farce:
The quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us ... Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I’ the posture of a whore. (Act 5, Sc. 2)
But in this production it is a drunken, uncontrolled Antony we have seen; and while there’s no hint of the boy actor in this sensual Cleopatra, there’s plenty of ‘the posture of a whore’. Yet these two have been – are – magnificent figures in their own right. Cleopatra is a queen, controlling a country and a culture, and ready still to lead her own fighting fleet; Antony is a Roman general, with a history of great deeds, yes, but also still engaged in major conflicts as both strategist and leader of men on the field of war. That we are seeing them in decline should only make their tragedy more poignant. But the play must also give us more than a glimpse of their greatness. It can’t just be reported, as it is by Philo in that same opening speech, reminding us of the martial power Antony once had: ‘his goodly eyes ... have glowed like plated Mars’, ‘his captain’s heart ... in the scuffles of great fights hath burst The buckles on his breast’. For as the play quickly teaches us, the report of others is shifting and contradictory; it can’t be relied on. What we have to do as an audience (and a production should enable that) is to weigh the different reports and uses of language within the historical and dramatic context from which they emanate.
The most striking tribute to Cleopatra comes early on in the play (Act 2. Sc 2) from the Roman Enobarbus (his language utterly at odds with that of his fellow soldier Philo). In a description prefaced by the incantatory ‘I will tell you’, Enobarbus (Tim McMullan) weaves an image which not only captivates the listener, but also demonstrates how and why Antony was captivated. It is still the woman who is conjured up (‘For her own person, it beggar’d all description’). But underlying that is the ruler Cleopatra, who has so commanded attention that ‘Antony, enthron’d i’ the market-place, did sit alone, Whistling to the air’. Key to her portrait in the play that she is both – ruler and woman, ruler as woman. No wonder that she is a threat to Rome, made visible in her conquering of their great general Antony, not through war but love.
Sadly, there was little sense of
Cleopatra’s power as queen in this production, unless you count costumes based
on Beyonce. The whole of the pre-play film for the Live Relay concentrated on
clothes. And there was a telling comment about the rehearsal approach: what
Simon Godwin the director begins with is the actors putting Shakespeare’s
speeches into their own words. Ok, sounds good – a way for actors to get inside
the roles. But in a play where the poetry is doing so much of the work, this is
to reduce rather than to enhance. That distinction between self-aggrandisement
and real feeling, precisely outlined in the poetry, could easily be lost. In
the end this production seemed too much on the side of Philo’s view: a
quixotically changeable Cleopatra, immersed in her own self-image, only too
ready to fake her own death in order to get some response from Antony. Now –
that’s all there in the play. But there also is another side, a noble Cleopatra,
to whom her followers are desperately faithful as Antony’s are not, to whom the
values of Egypt are sacrosanct, including her commitment to water and sail. To
this noble woman the poison of the asp is preferable to subservience to
Octavius Caesar, who, though he seems to offer due regard to her royalty,
cannily foresees that ‘her life in Rome Would be eternal to our triumph’. (Act
5, Sc 1) He envisages the captivity which Cleopatra also foresees, a subjugation
which is simply unacceptable for a great ruler such as she is.
As for Antony, his key moment in the play
is that where he calls to himself ‘All my sad captains ... Let’s mock the
midnight bell’ (Act 3. Sc 13). Antony is all too aware at this point that the
game is up; it’s there in the ‘sad’ of ‘sad captains’, and also in the
subsequent ‘I’ll force The wine peep through their scars’ – the wayward
celebratory wine doubling as blood yet to be shed. But ‘There’s sap in ‘t yet.
The next time I do fight I’ll make death love me; for I will contend Even with
his pestilent scythe.’ This is an Antony who knows he’s done for, but will
still contend, because that’s what he knows. But meanwhile – ‘one other gaudy
night’. Such important tragic moments, caught in Shakespeare’s sublime late
poetry, were in part lost because this Antony seemed, to us, never to be fully
Roman; he had long since succumbed to Egyptian ways, his cultural seduction
complete. When Cleopatra understands intuitively (Act 1, Sc. 2) that ‘A Roman thought hath struck him’, we should
feel a cold thrill , as Rome sends its sharpened arrow into Antony’s heart to
reclaim him. But in Rome he seems no
different, apart from donning a uniform – dispatching the business of placating
Octavius Caesar as quickly as he can, including an entirely pragmatic marriage
to his sister Octavia, carousing Pompey into amity in a night to equal
‘Egyptian Bacchanals’ (drunk again), and then hieing himself with all haste to
his pleasure ‘I’ the east’.
However, in this emphasis on the failings
of the central performances and of the
production as a whole, it must be said that we were apparently alone, as
the many five-star reviews of both actors, and direction, confirm. Perhaps this
was one occasion in which Live Relay worked badly. The relentless close-ups of
Live Relay are at odds with the massive and unforgiving scale of the Olivier
theatre. Another blogger notes that the result is often ‘TOO SHOUTY’.
Certainly, this production needed some quiet moments. But those that there were
felt manufactured, as Fiennes gathered his household staff together to sit upon
the ground and talk of many things, but mainly his gratitude to them. Perhaps
I’m being ungracious, but these ‘quiet moments’ felt too much like Fiennes
auditioning prematurely for King Lear,
his sad little boyish, oh-too- world-weary Antony attempting to take on tragic
dimensions but failing.
What this production and its live broadcast did convey was the sheer beauty and variety of the play’s poetry. If the way Antony and Cleopatra are each reported resounds more than the actions of the human beings we see on stage, what still remains is that poetry. We see, in Cleopatra’s words, Antony’s ‘delights’ as ‘dolphin-like, they showed his back above The element they lived in’. (Act 5, Sc. 2) And Enobarbus’ memory of Cleopatra hopping ‘forty paces through the public street’ spreads into all of our memories. Enobarbus’ verdict is significant – a Roman to the core, his loyalty all for his beloved Antony, he nonetheless sees Cleopatra with both a sharp and a generous vision. From this small vignette of her hopping like a child, till she has to stop for lack of breath, he goes to the heart of her supremacy over the imaginations of others: ‘she did make defect perfection, And, breathless, power breathe forth’. (Act 2, Sc 2)
A tragedy should come to its emotional
peak with the deaths of its protagonist(s). Difficult as these final deaths are
for the actor – Antony is an awful long time a-dying – , as befits a play about
report, the deepest emotion comes with how those deaths are subsequently
described in some of the most memorable poetry of the play. Cleopatra flails
around in highly emotive language for some time. But when she sees that ‘the
odds is gone And there is nothing left remarkable beneath the visiting moon’, we
share with her the great emptiness of death; when at last she accepts, ‘That
case of this huge spirit now is cold’, we feel the emptying out of the spirit
of Antony from his ‘captain’s heart’ and once-virile body. And after Cleopatra’s death, Charmian’s simple
view of her as ‘A lass unparallel’d’ stays with us more touchingly than all the
grandiose images – even if Cleopatra herself might have preferred the latter.
Oh – and that snake. In the lead up, we’d
been promised a live snake. And yes indeed, there was the live and very
snake-like actual snake in Cleopatra’s death scene – so much and so dominantly
a live snake that really nobody could think about anything else, including, I
surmise, Sophie Okonedo. And then subsequently the hapless Charmian (Gloria
Obianyo), who has to simultaneously take its sting but dispose of the snake
before she dies. This required an awkward, almost amateurish, moment of stage
business. Even watching it on film, we were all thinking – what if the snake
escapes?! A highbrow version of Snakes on
a Plane? Not the right thought to be having as Cleopatra takes the Roman
but also the highly Egyptian way forward, and out.
Enough of carping. As always, the play
remains. And it’s a wonderful play. Our disappointment is a measure of how much
we were expecting - which is where we came in.
Antony and Cleopatra continues at the National Theatre until January 19th 2019. Very limited availability but some seats always available on the day.
The next live broadcast from the National Theatre is Richard II, with Simon Russell Beale, on January 15th 2019.