Antony and Cleopatra, Directed by John Blondell, at the Bitola Shakespeare Festival, Macedonia, 22-28 July 2015
Reviewed by Randall Martin
The annual Bitola Shakespeare Festival, now in its third year, opened with a visually evocative and powerfully moving Antony and Cleopatra in Macedonian by the National Theatre Bitola, directed by John Blondell of the Lit Moon Theatre Company, Santa Barbara, USA.
Stagings of Antony and Cleopatra are still relatively rare, partly because traditions of naturalism challenge actors to convey the dynamic paradoxes of Antony’s withering tragedy and Cleopatra’s mercurial variety, to say nothing of grappling with images of Egyptian spectacle which every spectator brings to the theatre. Aware of these expectations, Blondell’s production offered a deliberately stylised interpretation with some cross-gendered casting (e.g. a female Enobarbus) by an all-white cast. It also pruned the Folio version to a brisk 90-minute script subtitled ‘A Performance for Theatre in Four Movements’, translated by Dragi Mihajlovski. Yet while Blondell’s adaptation was textually spare, his production choices gained proportionately richer significance. The Bitola company’s superb acting also wove the main personal arcs of Shakespeare’s story into a multilayered vision of love authenticated by sacrifice.
The production initially bracketed epic grandeur with a self-reflexive chamber-mode opening. Two rows of nine bistro chairs faced the audience on the proscenium apron before the curtain. Actor habitués entered wearing somber formal fashions except for Cleopatra (Valentina Gramosli) wearing a flaming red gown. As Philo deplored Antony’s transformation into a strumpet’s fool, one male actor (Peter Gorko) drew his chair closer to Cleopatra, tilted his head and gently rested it on her shoulder. They reminisced with the affectionate familiarity of an older couple on a park bench.
Their conversation passed to the Soothsayer blowing handfuls of dust at his fateful predictions of Charmian’s and Iras’s futures. As news of Fulvia’s death and Pompey’s rebellion raised the temperature, Cleopatra’s ‘court’ became claustrophobic. Antony moved his chair apart to explain with compelling sincerity his reasons for leaving Egypt before following the rest of actors through the curtain.
It rose on a spectacular Wagnerian landscape for the production’s next movements. A large crescent-moon walkway tapered downwards at either end on a large cyclorama. Floating above was a silver disk resembling a large gambling chip. Vertical megaliths, alternating mirror and marble, ringed this universe. When not the focus of conjunctions and disjunctions downstage, planet-characters moved slowly around the crescent. Occasionally they occupied the otherwise empty centre, as when Antony and Cleopatra reacted to the disaster of Actium from behind an imaginary cliff of the raised walkway.
The pared-down cast and dialogue allowed characterisation to emerge from direct address to the audience as well as action. Marjan Gjorgjievski’s tightly sneering Caesar, comparing Antony’s trans-Alpine endurance and present decadence, conveyed the empathy of a crocodile. When meeting Antony and Lepidus in Rome, he was already defiantly nailed to his seat when Antony invited him to sit down first. Between them Lepidus proposed the match with Octavia (a silent circulating figure), which Caesar accepted with the flick of a handshake. After initially reciprocating the quiet warmth of Antony, Enobarbus (Viktorija Stepanovska) related the famous meeting at Cydnus as a kind of confession, tenderly annoyed with his own indulgence of his general’s dotage. In the comically furious scenes of news about Octavia, Cleopatra displayed quick-shifting vanity, playfulness, vulnerability, hysteria and self-control, stopping short of physical abusing of the Messenger. Kneeling downstage, she tormented herself with a dream of Antony and Octavia’s wedding party, in which erotic heterosexual dancing replaced the usual homosocial revels of Pompey’s galley.
The lunar walkway turned sideways for the compressed 3rd movement, in which Antony and Cleopatra appeared in matching red doublets and gowns while others wore dun and black. Antony’s rage, despair, and brief lameness during Actium passed directly to the whipping of Thidias. A servant pretended to strike his back while Antony violently thwacked a chair with a cord. Thidias crawled away to be physically comforted by Caesar in same way Octavia had been earlier. Antony’s display of naked power seemed to arouse the impassively observing Cleopatra. She and Antony drank in the scent of each other’s bodies before he repeatedly lifted and sexually cradled her. Their hopes briefly revived, Cleopatra armed him while a disgusted Enobarbus walked away and presented his leather breastplate to Caesar. He then stripped to a shift as the much taller Caesar and Antony stared hatefully at each other over his head. His passionate speech of guilty betrayal was the first of several death-scenes. But his was the only one where a little blood appeared, after he clutched his bursting heart.
Caesar and Antony’s battle embraces gave way to the latter’s lost armour and frantic cries for Eros, with another lunar turn accompanying Mardian’s report of Cleopatra’s death. Holding up a dagger in both hands after Eros’s self-dispatch, Antony let it drop violently three times, a little forced smile acknowledging his incompetence. He listened with knowing incredulity to Diomedes’ news that Cleopatra was still alive and crawled painfully up the walkway. Drinking off the glass of wine she offered him, he stood up and monumentalized. As a distraught Cleopatra stellified her new ‘husband’, the ceiling disk tilted vertically, scattering cosmic twilight off the mirror panels. Cleopatra removed her red clothes and donned a white Macedonian wedding dressing and flowered crown. But Blondell’s production continued to complicate expectations of romantic transcendence. A baboushka woman wearing a long dark coat (Elena Moshe, who played Octavia) entered wiggling her upturned fingers and gossiping. When Cleopatra called for an asp, she lovingly kissed her and gave her a darting vampire-bite on the chest. Charmian followed peacefully after another snaky embrace. Keeping the focus on physical death, Caesar and his Guard conducted their forensic examination of the women’s bodies. Caesar permitted himself a smirk of satisfaction as he spun the lovers’ deaths into own story of magnanimous triumph and tossed off a glass of brandy.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
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