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“Strange Forms with Fancy”: Antony and Cleopatra

Shakespeare's Globe | London, UK

Performance Date: June 4, 2014

Katja Pilhuj

December 8, 2014


Although the play is called The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra, the latter half of this couple often overshadows Antony in theater, film, and popular perception. Not so in Jonathan Munby’s production at Shakespeare’s Globe this summer. This version of Shakespeare’s power couple offers a vivid view of both the Egyptian queen and her lover, a symmetry echoed in the play’s balanced use of language and the evocative movements of the players across the stage.

Eve Best’s Cleopatra begins her stage life in the same vein as many Cleopatras before her: a dominating whirlwind of commands, insecurities, and grand movements. While at times her stage presence threatens to overwhelm the other characters and even the audience (though a hearty kiss on a groundling’s lips elicited delighted laughter that evening), Clive Wood’s stolid, wry, and sometimes weary Antony provides an effective counterweight. Wood dominates the stage physically; his large stature, arms and legs akimbo, grounds the action swirling around him. Even small details are eye-catching, like the rakish pearl earring he wears (quickly and quietly removed when he arrives in Rome). This physicality is put to effective use during the scene when Cleopatra and her two women must hoist Antony into her monument: they slowly, painfully drag the wounded soldier up a ramp connected to the stage, adding an ironic visual echo of Cleopatra’s earlier and happier innuendo about the “happy horse” that “bear[s] the weight of Antony.”

That weight is still felt in the final act when death has removed Antony from the stage. Cleopatra’s dreamy rendering of Antony as a colossus who “bestrid the ocean” is given gravitas by Best’s sudden stillness and poise in contrast to her earlier fluctuations in mood and tone. This Antony’s absence creates a palpable space on stage that Best’s Cleopatra fills with the Antony of her imagination, drawn with stirring speech and a sense of longing that makes the queen’s suicide seem the obvious and best course of action.

Shakespeare’s words are, of course, the foundational element of any of his plays, and Antony and Cleopatra features a number of notable set speeches, like the Emperor Antony speech noted above and Enobarbus’ description of Cleopatra’s “infinite variety,” which are particularly vivid and memorable. Munby’s production enhances the stunning visual rhetoric of the script with the movements (or lack thereof) of his characters. The hedonistic east of Cleopatra’s Egypt is underscored by a raucous, vibrant, and almost chaotic opening dance that lasts for at least ten minutes and had the audience clapping and stamping along. The boredom and turpitude that Cleopatra suffers after Antony’s departure for Rome finds its reflection in both her languishing on a large, raised bed pulled slowly onto the stage and the measured, creaking movements of the fans that her servants waft over her.

In addition to establishing atmosphere, the players’ choreographed movements also serve as effective indications of character. Best’s often frenetic movements around the stage — especially when awaiting news of Antony and hearing of his marriage to Octavia — stand in sharp contrast to her servant Charmian, played by Sirine Saba, who stands nearly motionless. The queen’s frantic movements echo her sharp outbursts, while Charmian’s steady gaze and posture give more heft to her measured and often sarcastic responses. Saba’s poise and wry humor offer an alternative response to love’s vicissitudes.

The combination of speech and movement to convey character is especially effective in the contrast between Antony and Jolyon Coy’s Octavius. In Act Two, Antony, Lepidus, Octavius, Pompey and their men drunkenly celebrate their recent truce, with Antony inviting “all [to] take hands / Till that the conquering wine hath steeped our sense / In soft and delicate Lethe.” The men then engage in a rapid, loud, and acrobatic dance, with wine cups hoisted aloft to shouts and cheers. Wood’s Antony remains in the middle of this whirling mass of drunken men, enthusiastically joining the dance and the song with casual grace. In contrast, Octavius’s few lines in this scene are accentuated by Coy’s physical distance from the men as he looks on uneasily at the bacchanal until he is reluctantly pulled in. When the men accidentally drop him, Octavius angrily bursts out, “Our graver business / Frowns at this levity!” Coy’s rigid stance, petulant tone, and exasperation convey his lack of camaraderie with the men while at the same time highlighting Antony’s easy and friendly bonding with his soldiers. The contrast in leadership is clear: Octavius may be the more serious-minded and tactical of the two, but it is Antony who inspires devotion and love in his followers. The scene’s choreography also further highlights the division between Egypt and Rome, east and west, indulgence and empire.

One of the most effective uses of movement in the play is during the battle scenes. Acts Three and Four feature numerous brief scenes meant to convey the sense of preparation for war and troop movement. The production takes full advantage of the theater space in order to convey the shifting points of view as the two armies prepare for and engage in battle. Actors entered and left not only by the traditional stage doors but also used the doors placed around the groundling pit. Most striking was Munby’s depiction of the naval battle: two men carrying flags representing the opposing sides ran to center-stage before gracefully alighting on two ropes connected to the roof. In close proximity, the men’s momentum carried them into spin, facing each other in an intimate moving circle of fluttering flags that was both menacing and balletic. These aerial movements were a visually compelling stage piece that conveyed the terrible dance of battle.

Movement and dance were an integral part of this production; indeed, the drama was bookended by dance: the opening festive dance discussed above and the traditional concluding jig incorporating all the actors. The last dance moved the audience from the scene of the dead Cleopatra upon her throne, surrounded by Romans in quiet contemplation, to a lively celebration of the play’s successful closure. The production did not initially include the last dance, however. But after injuries and illness suffered by the cast, they and the crew requested to reinstate the jig, and no further mishaps occurred. It would seem that the theatrical powers-that-be also approved of this mixture of dance and drama.

And it is this movement and the text that the production connects so effectively and fairly consistently, one never completely subsuming the other. There are times when the visual is almost overwhelming, as when we are shown a scene only described by Octavius in the play: Cleopatra and Antony, dressed in shimmering gold as Isis and Hercules, process slowly through the groundlings to the stage, surrounded by bedecked and dancing attendants tossing gold confetti. Audience members in the galleries had also been given confetti, and the open space was filled with flashes of gold. Intermission followed abruptly after, and those audience members who did not rush to the restrooms were treated to the prosaic (and perhaps on-purpose) sight of a stagehand efficiently vacuuming the confetti from the stage.

In other places, Munby shows restraint where he could have indulged in excess. Instead of haughty grandeur, Cleopatra’s death scene reflects her wry insistence that the asp is merely a “baby at [her] breast.” The atmosphere was calm and quiet, with little added props. Best wore only a crown and silver cloak over a simple white shift still stained with Antony’s blood. The relatively simple throne was decorated only with silver wings that moved with the breeze and seemed more ephemeral than solid. The scene ultimately reflected the major strength found throughout this production: that of its unifying aesthetic of word and action.

Katja Pilhuj is an Associate Professor of English at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. Her work focuses on the use of geographic rhetoric in early modern drama and the artwork in early cartography. She has been published in Renaissance Papers and Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England, and has an article forthcoming in Early Modern Women: An Interdisciplinary Journal.

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