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I recently saw Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra directed by Tarell Alvin McCraney at the Public Theater in New York.  In truth, I hesitate to call this particular production Shakespeare’s, since he might well have refused any credit for this version.  Mr. McCraney, who, as a playwright, has his “signature theme, the cross-fertilization of African, Caribbean, and European cultures,” has brought this theme to this production.  See http://newyorktheatrereview.blogspot.com/2014/03/aaron-grunfeld-interviews-chukwudi.html.  (Now, what exactly was Shakespeare’s “signature theme”?)  So, the Egyptians become the noble, natural, authentic, winsomely earthy, brown-skinned Haitians, the Romans become their stiff, stuffy, sinister, pale-skinned French-colonial would-be-oppressors, and we get some Haitian music, some voodoo and some laughable dancing that looks like it would’ve felt perfectly at home in the Lion King.  Cleopatra, who is supposed to be the most alluring, beguiling, effortlessly regal and sophisticated woman in history, not to mention being surely the most complex female role Shakespeare ever conceived, and who should command any stage, whether theatrical or political, that she graces with her magnetic presence, instead, in the much-too-youthful and superficial treatment she is given by Joaquina Kalukango, turns into a coquettish neighborhood girl-next-door whose idea of being enticing is thrusting her bottom out at Antony, while he, in Jonathan Cake’s hands, is transformed from the flawed but heroic, Herculean man-among-boys that Shakespeare created into a boorish, self-indulgent fratboy, making us long for his ultimate undoing, which final moments on stage he (shockingly) plays for (both intentional and unintentional) laughs.  Octavius Caesar — who, as written by Shakespeare, is an interesting antagonist precisely because he is not a villainous would-be-tyrant in the vein of Shakespeare’s early Marlowe-inspired miscreants like the title character of Richard III, but rather, an ambitious nobleman born to rule whose every move, a contrast to Antony’s passionate humanity, is purely strategic and political — has to take on an unbecoming measure of conniving, weaselly snarkiness (despite Samuel Collings’ otherwise capable performance) in order to offset the two leads, who are so horrid and unsympathetic that a merely restrained and formal Octavius would have come off as pleasantly above their unseemly fray by comparison.  (Chukwudi Iwuji as Antony’s conflicted confidant Enobarbus, whose role is enlarged in this production, gives a refreshingly nuanced performance as he struggles between his loyalty to his long-time friend and leader and his distaste for Antony’s choice of his love for Cleopatra over his political duties (though, in this case, it is not clear whether Antony’s actions or Mr. Cake’s acting is the inspiration for the brunt of that distaste), but because I know the Mr. Iwuji personally, I will refrain from further comment on his performance.)

Surely, the fault for these on-stage atrocities lies largely with Mr. McCraney as the director of the piece.  Smearing Shakespeare in the familiar colors of your signature theme is simply not enough.  Though I see no particular reason to do so, you can, of course, if you wish, transplant Shakespeare to some other exotic setting or locale of your choosing.  Shakespeare is strong enough to survive the move.  But a mere transplantation does not an adaptation make.  You cannot effect a change of venue, add in a bit of local color (some theme-inspired song-and-dance), and stop there, saying, as it were, “There, I have enacted my brilliant re-imagining of Antony and Cleopatra for you the audience to marvel at my stroke of genius.”  You still actually have to direct; you have to give life to the play that was written, convey to the audience how it is that your scene change has enriched or illuminated the original material if, indeed, you think it was in any need of such enrichment or illumination.  This means, first and foremost, developing a nuanced understanding of what the play is about, what the words mean, what drives the characters to do what they do.  It is in these respects that Mr. McCraney has failed entirely (even if, for all his other numerous failings, he did manage to succeed in making the language his actors spoke sound natural enough on stage).  Antony and Cleopatra is, first and foremost, a play about the contrast, indeed, the incompatibility between the personal and the political, between a life driven by human passions and aspirations and the political life that demands the suppression of such humanity.  Caesar prevails over the title characters in the political arena not because he is some dastardly, conniving schemer but because he knows only one ruling passion:  the passion to rule.  He is single-minded.  His every thought is strategic.  It is for this reason that, unlike Antony, Caesar is able to resist Cleopatra’s substantial allure quite effortlessly, and when Antony and Cleopatra finally meet their demise, his final speech, the final words of the play (which Mr. McCraney unforgivably gives to Enobarbus, thereby signalling to one and all his total failure to grasp the import of the text), proposes to turn what is a highly personal tragedy of two flesh-and-blood human beings into “high order,” into formal political theater, that is:

Take up her bed;
And bear her women from the monument:
She shall be buried by her Antony:
No grave upon the earth shall clip in it
A pair so famous. High events as these
Strike those that make them; and their story is
No less in pity than his glory which
Brought them to be lamented. Our army shall
In solemn show attend this funeral;
And then to Rome. Come, Dolabella, see
High order in this great solemnity.

The role of Antony is a difficult one, because the human passions (love and the love of beauty) that make Antony refreshingly mortal in contrast to the soon-to-be first emperor of Rome are one and the same as the human weakness that is his undoing and that ultimately makes Antony distasteful even to his closest confidant, Enobarbus.  The actor charged with the role must be capable of striking this delicate balance, of making us feel for him … and feel emotions other than the pure disgust Mr. Cake manages to engender.  For Shakespeare, this theme of the deep incompatibility between the aesthetic impulse, the cultivation of the love of beauty (an attribute embodied by Cleopatra in the play, of course), and the political impulse was surely personal in light of his and his company’s repeated run-ins with the Elizabethan censors, which, on occasion, forced him to bowdlerize his works.

Ironically, we are the ones who now, all too often, do the bowdlerizing.  Closely paralleling the play’s central theme, there remains a profound incompatibility between the aesthetic imperative to trust the language and present Shakespeare pure and simple, as he might have envisioned it, and the more politically and economically driven temptations to alter the text drastically to appeal to a broad (but shrinking) ticket-buying public that has had its attention span sapped by non-stop multitasking and high-stimulation entertainments and is increasingly functionally illiterate (or, at best, possessed of a bare level of literacy sufficient to send and receive little more than routine business communications, Tweets, status updates and the like) (these are points I have elaborated upon at length elsewhere: http://www.themontrealreview.com/2009/The-Advent-of-Virtual-Realism.php), and from whom Shakespeare’s language is, in any event, rendered essentially foreign by the passage of time.  This is why we get ham-handed, desperate transplantations of the plays such as Mr. McCraney’s, stagings that betray a profound failure to appreciate the text and aspire, instead, to plug it in to some ready-made timely theme-of-the-moment in the hopes of deploying Shakespeare in pursuit of a personal idea or agenda rather than deploying whatever ideas and agendas one may have in pursuit of Shakespeare’s text.  Mr. McCraney’s botch job is a particularly egregious case in this respect, but there are many contenders to the throne.

The only solution, in my view, is a new kind of Shakespearean theater that will almost entirely eliminate the temptation to dumb things down by making a compact with the audience:  for the theater’s part, it will promise to stage Shakespeare qua
Shakespeare (as a matter of fact, “Shakespeare qua Shakespeare” is not a bad moniker for the endeavor), and for your part, you promise to come prepared.  With your ticket purchase, you get a free PDF copy of the play.  Read it … or, better yet, open up your Riverside Shakespeare and read the version that has all those helpful notes at the bottom to explain the unfamiliar words and turns of phrase.  You won’t be tested on the material (though I’m tempted …), but if you don’t keep your end of the bargain, you might simply be lost or just not get as much out of it as you otherwise would have (though I would wager that when a skilled actor brings the language to life with a fine interpretative performance, you’ll still get enough of a sense to enjoy yourself a good deal more than you would have had you seen the vulgar voodoo version of Shakespeare that Mr. McCraney has concocted).

Not an economically sound proposition, you protest?  Well, why don’t we try it and see?  Quality sometimes (though not always, to be sure) has a way of earning its keep, getting itself a fine critical reputation, garnering plaudits and prestige, putting other Shakespeare productions to shame, attracting the best talent and, in the end, drawing the private support and government funding it needs to survive.  The risk, like Antony and Cleopatra’s own, in any event, is worth it, for only if we pursue the aesthetic imperative alone and let all else follow in its wake if it will or be damned if it won’t might we, as directors, actors and viewers, draw closer to that impassioned nothing-else-matters embrace between Antony and Cleopatra and, as we sit in the theater’s sacred space, in the throes of that embrace, enthralled, along with Antony, proclaim:

Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space!
Kingdoms are clay! Our dungy earth alike
Feeds beast as man. The nobleness of life
Is to do thus, and when such a mutual pair
And such a twain can do’t, in which I bind,
On pain of punishment, the world to weet
We stand up peerless.