Antony and Cleopatra

A Review

Cleopatra

Sophie Okonedo as Cleopara

If you ever get a chance to see a production of National Theatre Live you should. The next best thing to live theatre is live telecast theatre. The play Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare is my fourth foray into this domain and it didn’t disappoint. Watching fine British actors like Ralph Fiennes who plays Mark Antony, and Sophie Okonedo  who plays Cleopatra, is a delightful pleasure like none other.

Harold Bloom, writing in his masterful work, Shakespeare – The Invention of the Human, says, “Of Shakespeare’s representation of women, Cleopatra is the most subtle and formidable.” And I would say Sophie Okenedo’s portrayal of her is by far the most superb interpretation of this magnificent creature. She is by turns moody, funny, bitchy, sexy, powerful, and above all regal. Ralph Fiennes holds his own with her as the Roman General who is in decline. Antony, like empires, is a study in decline and fall. The very hairs on his head rebel against the aging warrior. “My very hairs do mutiny; for the white reprove the brown for rashness, and they them for fear and doting.” You will see in him, one of the triple pillars of the world, transformed into a strumpet’s fool.

Ralph Fiennes

Ralph Fiennes as Mark Antony

In an interview Ralph Fiennes says of the pair, “He’s not an idealized warrior and she’s not an idealized princess. They’re full of temperament and tantrums and mood swings, and I think that combination is very moving to people.” Are Antony and Cleopatra in love? Well they certainly appeared to me to be in love. They certainly were not bored with each other.

Director Simon Godwin kept the action moving in this modern dress rendition of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Costume designer Evie Gurney created designs for Cleopatra that were not just costumes but high fashion. They had to communicate not only her physicality but project power as well. The dyes used in the fabrics were made with Sophie’s skin tone in mind so that she would exhibit a golden glow. The Saffron dress was inspired by Beyoncé’s Lemonade album. So, it is not too great a stretch to say a costume fit for Queen Bey was also fit for Queen Cleopatra.

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Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo

The set design by Hildegard Bechtler was imaginative and ingenious. It was fluent and moving as the scenes changed in a smooth fluid manner. The center stage revolved from one scene to another, actors walked off into darkness others appeared in light. It was a miracle of rare device, changing swiftly from Egypt to Rome and back again. And at one point a submarine conning tower miraculously arose from the stage floor. And in Egypt a turquoise tiled pool. This magnificent play plays superbly well when properly directed and acted. It is too large for just any stage, but London’s Olivier is just the ticket!

In the climactic scene Cleopatra asks, “Hast thou the pretty worm of Nilus there, that kills and pains not?”

The worm of Nilus in this production looked more like a giant coral snake, with vibrant colors of red, yellow and black, but I am sure it made more of a dramatic stage presentation than its colorless cousin the asp.

“Will it eat me?” She childishly asks.

“I wish you all joy of the worm,” is the answer.

When she is discovered by Octavius after the fatal bite, he says, “Cleopatra shall be buried by her Antony: No grave upon earth holds in it a pair so famous.”

This play is about war writ large, East vs West, and two flawed individuals passionately in love with each other and at times at war with each other too.

 

 

She Came to Stay

When I was in London recently I had occasion to stay at the Thistle Hotel. In the morning as I was having breakfast my waitress came over to offer me more coffee. Sure, I said, I’d love some. As she refilled my cup she glanced down at the book on the table which I had brought with me to read. She look back at me and then in her best English accent asked me, “Well did she?”

Of course to her I was the one with the accent.

“Did she what?”

“Did she stay?”

At first I didn’t know what she meant. I looked at her and then I looked at the book and then I look back at her again and then in an instant of recollection, understanding, and reckoning I said, “She did indeed.”

My waitress beamed a self-satisfied smile and flitted off to the next customer to offer them some coffee.

The next day I was off to France to drink a toast to the author of the book, Simone de Beauvoir. This I would do at the fabled Cafe De Flore in Paris.

But I still had another day in London so I thought I’d spend it at the British Museum.

UNDERGROUND

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I recently visited London and Paris. I had long dreamed of vising these places as they have lived in my imagination for years from reading books. Using the subway systems of Philadelphia and New York City, primed me for the London Underground and the Parisian Metro system.

On one of my many excursions around London, I descended the steps into the underground, and encountered a smiling, red-faced uniformed attendant.

“Hello!” I said.

“Hello!” he returned.

I inquired about the best route to get to my destination.

“Take the Circle Line to Baker Street, transfer to the Jubilee Line. Get off at Southwark and it is only a short walk to the Globe.”

“Thank you!”

“Cheers!”

This was typical of my experience in the London Underground— easy to navigate with friendly attendants and patrons who were willing to answer your questions.

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In Paris, perhaps the incongruity of being in a strange land made my existence there somehow congruent. I felt at home at last. Once I arrived in Paris, I approached a Parisian Metro booth and spoke to one of the attendants.

“Parlez-vous anglais?”

“Un peu.”

Although I did not speak the language, I was able to communicate well enough to find my way, with a few words and hand gestures.

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On one of my last days in the city, I was sitting outside, having a glass of red wine at the Café de Flore on Boulevard Saint Germaine. A Frenchman who took the table next to mine, lit up a cigar and then glanced in my direction to ask if I was offended by the cigar smoke.

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“Oh, no,” I said, “I understand that people who sit outside often smoke and I am not offended.”

He nodded and smiled. He took a couple of puffs off his cigar and we began talking, he in perfect English. We talked for a long time about a wide range of events including the recent terrorist attacks. I mentioned the increased security around the metro. He shared that he had just talked to his daughter who lives in the neighbourhood where the attacks occurred and she felt safe using the Metro System.

“Yes,” he cautioned, “but the police and soldiers cannot be everywhere. You have to be vigilant. In effect, we have to be responsible for our own security.”

As we were sitting there, we watched many police vehicles driving by with their sirens blaring.

“Something’s going on,” he said.

Then he pointed out that if a car were to pull up in front of us right now and gunmen got out and started shooting, what could we do about it? Nothing! He was right of course. So I concluded that the French are a little fatalistic about such things.

C’est la vie?

I travelled to London and Paris by myself because I needed to be alone. I needed time to think about my life and my absurd existence with only myself for company as I walked the cobblestone streets of Montmartre. The encounters that I did have gave me reason to believe in the possibility of happiness and the hope for humanity. I found in both London and Paris, a big smile and a hello or bonjour broke down the normal barriers humans seem to erect between themselves. You can be anonymous, but by using the universal language of a smile followed by a greeting you can still be touched by the human heart.

 

 

 

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

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The Globe Theatre was first built in 1549 on the southern bank of the River Thames in the Southwark section of London. The Globe was built as a large, round, open air theatre. There was a roof around the circumference which covered the seating area. Because of its shape and the materials from which it was constructed the theatre has been call a wooden “O.”

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The architectural style of the Globe was similar the coliseum in Rome but on a smaller scale. The globe had three stories of seating and was able to hold up to 3,000 patrons in its 100 foot diameter. The base of the stage was called the pit, which held the groundlings. These people just paid a penny for a performance for which they stood to watch. The groundling were also called “stinkards” as bathing was infrequent and no one washed their woolens.

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There were no actresses performing at the Globe. Female roles were played by young boys. The theatre was considered too risqué for ladies. As a matter of fact, the reason the theatre was located on the south side and across the river from London was to put a river between the theatre and the decent folks who lived on the other side.

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In Shakespeare’s time no one drank water as it was likely to be contaminated by sewage. Instead, everyone, including children, drank beer.

Due to outbreaks of the plague, the Globe was forced to close in 1603 and 1608 and in 1613 the Globe Theatre burnt down. A cannon fired for a special effect during a performance of Henry V set fire to the thatched roof. The fire spread so quickly the theatre burnt to the ground in two hours. No one was hurt except for one man whose pants caught on fire and was doused with a bottle of beer to extinguish the fire. This may have been the earliest case of, “Liar! Liar! Pants on Fire!” on record. The Globe was rebuilt the next year in 1614.

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In 1640 the Puritans closed the Globe Theatre with an Order of Suppression against stage plays. In 1614, the theatre was torn down and converted to tenement housing. Fast forward to 1997.

In 1997 a third version of the Globe Theatre was built close to the original site in Southwark. It was called, “Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.” The idea to reconstruct Shakespeare’s Globe theatre came from American actor, director, and producer, Sam Wanamaker who initiated the project to rebuild. He funded the Shakespeare’s Globe Trust. He spent 23 years raising funds and researching the original appearance of the Globe. The new theatre was built using 1000 oak trees from English forests and 6000 bundles of reeds from Norfolk for the thatched roof. Sam died in 1993 just three and a half years before the theatre was completed in 1997. It truly is a magnificent structure and a priceless time portal into the past where we can watch and see for ourselves, how Shakespeare invented the human.

Information for this article was gleaned from the Shakespeare’s Globe website. All pictures are original and taken by me at the site.