Antony And Cleopatra
96-97 Season Season

The Infinite Variety of Antony and Cleopatra

MIRANDA JOHNSON-HADDAD

British director Ron Daniels likens the experience of directing Shakespeare to falling in love: "Every time you do it you've never done it before, and you're a pioneer, and this is very much the way I feel about encountering any Shakespeare text." Daniels is currently preparing to fall in love again, this time with Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra , which he will direct this season at The Shakespeare Theatre. (The production runs from December 3, 1996 through January 19, 1997.) Speaking by telephone from London, Daniels shared his thoughts about this complex and intriguing drama, which he calls "a middle-aged Romeo and Juliet ." Written relatively late in the playwright's career, Antony and Cleopatra defies easy categorization; at times it reads like a comedy, but at other times the action becomes overwhelmingly tragic. Early on in the play, Antony's close friend Enobarbus famously observes of Cleopatra that "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety." As Daniels suggests, the same could be said of the play itself, for the characters and their actions seem by turns foolish and noble, ridiculous and poignant, but they remain consistently fascinating, and they never lose their ability to move us.

This production will be Ron Daniels's first at The Shakespeare Theatre, and it also represents his first time directing Antony and Cleopatra , a play that he says he has been "longing" to direct. A former Associate Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company in England, Daniels has recently concluded a five-year affiliation with the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as Associate Artistic Director. His distinguished directing career includes over 35 productions of Shakespeare's plays, as well as numerous contemporary plays, a balance that the director believes has helped him to keep his handling of Shakespeare dynamic. "You don't want to treat Shakespeare as a museum piece," he adds.

Antony and Cleopatra is, in Daniels's view, a play about two opposing civilizations: the Roman world, which he sees as "masculine, assertive, and severe," and which values and rewards its male conquerors; and Egypt, "the periphery of the known world," where the flux of the Nile creates a culture that is feminine and sensual, a world that overflows with color, exotica, and abundance of every kind. The conflict between these two worlds is typical of Shakespeare, according to Daniels, and the questions that he believes the play poses are strikingly contemporary: "How do these two different worlds interrelate? Are they mutually destructive or mutually enhancing?" And, perhaps the most compelling questions, "What happens when the Romans who have experienced the colors and smells and sensual pleasures of Egypt are called home? What happens when the conquerors themselves become the conquered?"

This last question is primarily the question of what happens to Antony, whom Shakespeare's audiences would have remembered in all his youthful vigor and oratorical skill from the earlier play Julius Caesar (performed at The Shakespeare Theatre during the 1993-94 season). In Antony and Cleopatra , audiences see an older Antony, one who has become disillusioned with Rome and its rigid ways and who has experienced the manifold delights of Egypt. Daniels suggests that we must decide whether the play tells "the story of a great man who decays and is lost to the world because of his great sensual awakening," or whether it reveals the experience of a man "who discovers a whole new dimension to himself which he didn't realize was there." Daniels continues, "Many of the Romans are incapable of encountering a world of femininity, of joyfulness, in themselves, and therefore they are censorious, and they are threatened by the strange awakening there is in Antony through Cleopatra. Antony feels himself other than a Roman, though he tries valiantly to return to Rome and do the things that are expected of him. Is this a decay or is this a wonderful sense of self-discovery?"

Daniels notes that when Antony turns his back on Rome for good that "the language of the play reaches its zenith [and becomes] some of the best language that Shakespeare ever wrote." The increasingly beautiful language persuades Daniels that self-discovery is a central theme of this play, as it frequently is in Shakespeare. But self-discovery comes at a cost, and in the case of this play, the cost is an entire civilization and way of life. Daniels points out that we often see in Shakespeare's plays a pattern of "catastrophe followed by the re-establishment of an order that precludes a sense of possibility." This pattern holds true for Antony and Cleopatra , in which "Antony is the last of those men connected with Julius Caesar, the last of the grand old men. The world is now populated and ruled by youngsters such as Octavius. Antony and Cleopatra are larger than life, and at the end we deeply mourn that their passing and their love, as revolutionary as it was, is now replaced by the world of Octavius Caesar and of creatures who are far, far smaller than they were."

Although Daniels believes that the most probing questions the play asks concern Antony, he notes that Cleopatra is, of course, central to the play's themes. Daniels sees Cleopatra as "continually becoming, defying categorization, defying the ways that female behavior should or should not be conducted, transcending barriers.... She is continually evolving, growing, becoming greater than she was previously."

Shakespeare Theatre audiences will recognize Helen Carey in the role of Cleopatra; Carey returns after an acclaimed 1995-96 Shakespeare Theatre season, in which she portrayed a powerful Lady Macbeth and a wonderfully batty Lady Politic Would-Be in Ben Jonson's Volpone . She most recently played the iron-willed Margaret in Michael Kahn's single-evening adaptation of Henry VI . She will be joined by Tom Hewitt in the role of Antony, who will be making his Shakespeare Theatre debut. Hewitt has been seen on Broadway in The School for Scandal and The Sisters Rosensweig , Off-Broadway in Jeffrey and Beau Jest (for which he was nominated for an Outer Circle Critics Award), and at Washington's Arena Stage, where he performed in numerous productions in the 1980s.

If he could be granted one wish about this production, what would it be? Daniels replied, "I would love audiences to laugh, to cry, to feel perplexed, to judge, to be bewildered and confused and then find sources of clarification and enlightenment through the words of Shakespeare." But most of all, he says, "I would love audiences to have a good time."

Miranda Johnson-Haddad
Howard University

9/19/2005

 

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