31. Antony and Cleopatra
I feel like Antony and Cleopatra is one of those plays that you know and yet really don’t know at the same time. It still conjures up images of Burton and Taylor, even though I’ve only ever seen clips of that film version. In many ways, I feel this play is more cinematic than theatrical – its scale and grandeur lend themselves to lavish set, quick cuts and epic battle scenes.
Weirdly, I once ended up at an RSC press night party for Antony and Cleopatra without ever having seen the production! Before this reading, my only real experience of play was using the Enobarbus speech describing Cleopatra as a Shakespeare exercise and, over lockdown, watching the NT At Home screening of Simon Godwin’s production with Sophie Okonedo and Ralph Fiennes. (A production that, I must confess, I remember mainly for its length!).
Ultimately, I think this is a very difficult play to stage. For a number of reasons.
Firstly, it is very very long! It’s definitely a good three hours, if not more.
Secondly (and linked to the length), it has a very confused structure. In reality, this is two plays merged into one. It is a love tragedy – two powerful, tempestuous, passionate individuals inextricably drawn to each other, their love and passion burning so fiercely that it consumes them and destroys them. But it is also a political drama – a power struggle between three emperors of Rome who, through a combination of diplomacy and warfare, fight for supremacy. (Whilst maintaining the appearance of honour.) In many ways, the interest of the play is in this conflict between the two stories, which in turn are the two sides of Antony – the lover and the emperor – that are also in conflict with each other. So, on one level, it does work. But it does lead to both plotlines feeling slightly undercooked and (as mentioned above) it being very long!
Thirdly, it is quite confusing for those without a prior knowledge of the history. There are a lot of characters in the play, many with very unfamiliar names. It can be hard to follow who is who and who is a follower of who. Admittedly, this is much harder to do when reading than it would be when on its feet, but I do think the play assumes quite a lot of prior knowledge. This is a knowledge that we simply don’t have anymore (or at least, my generation and younger certainly don’t).
Having said all this, the characters are superbly drawn and written. This is one of Shakespeare’s finest bits of character work. Both Cleopatra and Antony are captivating. Caesar’s political cunning is fascinating. Enobarbus’ wit, combined with his struggle to remain loyal to a doomed cause, is beguiling. There’s a lot to be enjoyed and explored in all of them.
My main struggle with the play is that it fails to excite me or invest me in a particularly relatable or important human struggle. Yes, Antony is torn between his love and his political responsibilities/ambitions. I suppose he is also struggling against his age and the passing of power from his generation to the next. In some ways, the story is about a deluded desire to remain young and virile. So maybe this play will resonate more with me as I get older. But, right now, I struggle to find the purpose or point in this play. It doesn’t suck me in with emotion or puzzle me with a human dilemma. As such, it’s not one that I will be leaping to direct any time soon. Though, I’m sure it would be an exciting challenge if I ever did.