Carissa Lee reflects on Bell Shakespeare’s recent intimate production of Antony and Cleopatra
The last time Bell Shakespeare staged Antony and Cleopatra was back in 2001, on a proscenium stage, with everyone wearing 1920’s garb. Sadly I didn’t see this production, as I was 14 and living in Mount Gambier at the time. So, the mixed reviews that this production has received, where a lot of reviewers just haven’t been able to get past the “modern” retelling of this story, have been a bit odd to encounter.
You guys, an element of suspended belief is required when seeing a play. In conventional stagings, we have a bunch of white people speaking in iambic pentameter, claiming to be the leaders of Rome and Egypt. Not an ounce of swearing takes place when poor old Antony realises that he’s initially botched his suicide, and we are left with the three women who are forced to end their own lives because they’re looking down the barrel of a lifetime of rape. And you mob are pissed off about the staging and costumes? There’s more than one way to stage a Shakespeare, so let’s lose this idea that everything is corsets and swords.
Admittedly, when I first I saw Anna Cordingley’s living room set, I wondered how this epic tragedy could be staged in so intimately. As the entire cast was on stage for most of the time, the staging initially felt cluttered, a feeling created by both the physical presences and the magnitude of the text. But as the performance continued, I warmed to the design.
Ultimately I found this intimate view of a play invited me in, giving me a bigger emotional investment in the characters. Although the audience is privy to the larger dimensions of this tragedy, Peter Evans’ production brought us close enough to see the bitterness, conflict and ego within human beings that is the origin of these larger wars.
The story is played as a domestic drama that looks at the inner workings of human behaviour during political conflicts, instead of focusing larger events that diminish the smaller catastrophes that accompany them. And the set as chic lounge room, surrounded by opaque curtaining, was very practical, becoming a blank canvas for transporting the players and audience through a moving world.
The central space is used for the more tense scenes, with just a couch or two moved around by the actors. Images are projected onto the opaque curtains, creating moments of haze, caused by alcohol, war or love. The Age’s Cameron Woodhead was quick to criticise this creative choice, as well as the domestic portrayal of the characters, for underplaying the bigger picture of the war and lowering the stakes. (Although I do agree with his assessment that Ray Chong Nee’s performance as Enobarbus had a a resonance that would have been better suited to Antony).
There are odd moments where the performances depart from the intimate staging, such as in the second act, when actors partially exited the stage into the audience. This includes a pivotal scene when the women buy poison to kill themselves. It is almost farcical, with the clown acting as some Mad Hatter kook while the doomed women wept, facing death as the only alternative to a life of abuse. At this point my emotional investment in the characters clashed with the production: I didn’t appreciate seeing my girls and their inevitable and unfair demise being mocked. Twelfth Night (Feste the Jester) and Hamlet (the Gravediggers), are a couple of many examples where Shakespeare mixes humour and clown-like characters with tragedy without it feeling cheap, and I felt this could have been done better.
Having said that, epic Shakespearean plays can be difficult to work in any naturalistic format. The performances end up being a mix, with mixed results: some players deliver naturalistic portrayals that suited the staging in the round, while others give amplified performances that reflect the heightened language and scale of the play. Sometimes the performative differences make the characters seem like they aren’t really listening to one another. In other scenes, this comes across as character choices, which create a various array of people in this world. Which is how the world is, really.
Max Lyandvert’s compositions create an edgy atmosphere and work beautifully with Benjamin Cisterne’s lighting design. Red, blue and green lighting states represented where we were in the world, with projections of time, place, and previous events on the opaque curtains situating the audience within the story.
Emma Vine’s costuming is chic. Everyone looks gorgeous, giving the impression that we’re sitting in on a glamorous party. Cleopatra (Catherine McClements) and Antony (Johnny Carr) are both dressed in black suits, in a subtle nod to their pairing. While the other women within the play wear feminine clothes, Cleopatra remains neutral, equal to her Antony, emphasising their presence as an island in this hostile world. The designer outfits and fitted suits of the cast complement the sleek, polished choreography (Nigel Poulton), particularly when cast members are draped over the furniture.
The stand-out performances for me are the three women of Egypt. Catherine McClements’ Cleopatra is the scariest character: even in her moments of joy and love, you can feel the undercurrent of her tension, her need to be in control. In her performance, the crucial relationships are with the women who are her loyal companions, Charmian (Zindzi Okenya) and Alexas (Janine Watson). It’s visible even her moments of anger – lashing out at her loyal servant Alexas or in the death scene, even though her suicide is caused by Antony. In contrast, the scenes between Antony and Cleopatra are all infatuation, love submerged to the point of peripheral blindness: Alexas and Charmian keep Cleopatra grounded and present. And we don’t realise the depths of the love between the women until their end, which to me is the greatest tragedy.
As Charmian, Okenya takes on the role of confidante, girlfriend, and voice of reason for the neurotic Cleopatra. She brings a deep generosity to her scenes, which I imagine makes any actor who works alongside her feel like they’re home. Her comic timing, keeping Cleopatra under control when she was flying off the handle is impeccable. Likewise, Watson’s performance as Alexas is vulnerable and honest, and her realisation of their impending death during the women’s final scene is gut-wrenching. Her death broke my heart.
I enjoyed how this production evaded the expectation of majestic performance: the staging and direction coaxes us to see the smaller, defining moments of these characters, rather than the global events that erupt around them. It focuses the story on their humanity. It’s too easy to associate Shakespeare with the grandiose gestures found in period costuming, sword fights, dramatic deaths, and epic sets, but this can distract an audience from the actors themselves.
This Antony and Cleopatra permitted the audience to see these characters as happy, drunk, lost, besotted people in a world that is turned upside-down from a very human fuck-up: betrayal. We are too quick to forget that wars begin with humans making bad decisions, and this production highlights the frustration of how easily they can be avoided, reminding us that these deaths need never happen. I know it isn’t great escapism, considering that in the world we live in the same meaningless deaths occur every day. But if you come to see a tragedy, it’s worth remembering the reality behind it. What that tragedy really means.
Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare, directed by Peter Evans. Design by Anna Cordingley, lighting design by Ben Cisterne, composition and sound design by Max Lyandvert, movement and fight choreography by Nigel Poulton. Performed by Catherine McClements, Johnny Carr, Ray Chong Nee, Joseph Del Re, Lucy Goleby, Ursula Mills, Zindzi Okenyo, Gareth Reeves, Steve Rodgers, Jo Turner and Janine Watson. Bell Shakespeare. Closed.