“And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world.” John Steinbeck
Last week, I had the opportunity to attend William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra at The Public Theater (co-produced by GableStage and the RSC in collaboration with OSU). I have a great fondness for the Bard’s Roman plays, and this one is no exception — though it does not get performed much. I am happy to report that this production is as vital, passionate, and relevant a presentation of the work as one is likely to get. And having sat through a few museum performances of what is supposed to be an emotionally-charged narrative, I am glad to see Antony and Cleopatra brought back to life.
Firstly, this is a funny interpretation. The humor is by no means gratuitous. It comes out of the situation that these exceedingly brilliant but exceedingly flawed people are very much in love but also not exactly compatible either. The director, Tarrell Alvin McCraney, manages to evoke empathy for both Cleopatra and Antony when the other is behaving unreasonably (this happens often). Additionally, McCraney finds the Monty Python-like absurdity in the situation, such as when Antony, who has tried to commit suicide and failed for the death of Cleopatra, discovers that she is in fact not dead. Rather than blunt the emotional impact, this choice instead heightens it. On the stage of the Public, they are so wonderfully, messily, completely human that it was a joy to be with them. Much more enthralling than being in the room with two beings who behave as if they are gods.
Secondly, the production embraces a post-colonial theme. The Tempest remains the go-to work in the canon for collisions of culture, but there is more than enough textual evidence in Antony and Cleopatra to support a similar reading here. The setting has been moved to the late 18th century. Rome is represented by the England of this period, at the genesis of its worldwide expansion. Egypt is represented as a Caribbean island. McRaney utilizes both Caribbean and African music, dance, and ritual in the telling of his story. Santería plays a prominent role. Caesar, who is meant to be an exemplary figure, morphs into something less heroic when costumed as a Regency Era Sea Lord.
Thirdly, the small acting company performs the Herculean task of conveying the epic sweep of the work. Jonathan Cake (Antony) and Joaquina Kalukango (Cleopatra) turn in nuance performances of two people who are addicted to one another and yet clearly do not belong together. Of particular note are Chivas Michael (as the Soothsayer and Eros) and Chukwudi Iwuji (as Enobarbus). The edits here placed Enobarbus as narrator and made him much more central to the runaway storyline. Iwuji becomes the voice of Antony and Cleopatra, and it is through his eyes that we witness the tragedy unfold. So his loss is as great as that of the two leads.
Productions of Shakespeare walk a very fine line. If they are too traditional, they risk becoming the theatrical equivalent of Miss Havisham, doomed to wander alone in a rotting house overrun by dust and cobwebs neither touching nor being touched. If they try to be too modern for the kids — hey, let’s set Taming of a Shrew on the Space Station Mir — they run the risk of becoming parodies of themselves and losing all relevance. This Antony and Cleopatra gets the balance just right. Special kudos to dramaturg James Shapiro (full disclosure: he was my mentor back during my Columbia days) for helping ground the emotional life and the world of the play.
I highly recommend this production. It fulfills the prescription for art of another Roman, Horace; it both educates and entertains.