I’ve been reading a lot of books and articles about Antony and Cleopatra lately, getting ready for the remount. One thing that comes up over and over is people saying that the title characters are older, they’re jaded, their love is real, but tempered with a certain utilitarianism. They need each other, politically. Their love is convenient.
When I read this at first, my reaction was an immediate rejection. That can’t be right. It’s a love story. They’re hyperbolic and overly intense, but they do truly love each other… Don’t they?
I’m going to do something that my professors hated, and which I mark my own students down for, which is using “they say” to indicate a broad consensus. The people I’ve read on this recently are Harold Bloom, W. H. Auden, Harriet Walter, Peter Hall, Mark Rylance, and Judi Dench. When I refer “they,” I’m talking about something I read to some extent in all of these people’s writing.
I kept seeing this, though, in writing by very smart people. There’s some consensus that this relationship has cynical layers. I started to wonder, maybe I’m the one who is reading this play wrong. How can all these very smart people be wrong? It must be me.
I see what they are saying–they point to the way that Antony pushes himself away from Cleopatra whenever he’s alone onstage (“I must from this enchanting queen break off!”). They note some of the overblown phrases the characters use, as if they are putting on a show of love, rather than really feeling it (“My heart was to thy rudder tied by the strings”). Several very talented actors have used alcoholism to explain Antony’s behavior.
Even though I think they might be right–and I honestly do!–I can’t bring myself to read the play this way. I think “My heart was to thy rudder tied by the strings” are the most true words Antony can come up with to express a tremendous emotion, so powerful it crosses from a mere feeling to a physical experience.
The magic is where we make it.
My first instinct with Shakespeare, when we’re tackling something especially tricky, is to trust him and play the words as written. I understand how Antony feels when he says, “I must from this enchanting queen break off!” When I read Antony and Cleopatra on the page, I always wonder Why do I even like this play? The people are awful to each other, the fourth act is kind of a mess, and there’s a pile of politicking. But as soon as I’m watching it or working on it, I’m utterly enthralled with its magic. When we look at what Shakespeare says about the relationship in this play, and don’t try to logic around it, we see the thing Shakespeare always tells us about love–it doesn’t have to make sense. Its power is in its ineffability.
I talk sometimes about wanting to do “magical realism Shakespeare.” To me, that means believing in the magic he offers us. When I ask Margaret’s curse to be the force that drives the plot of Richard III, I’m creating a world where we treat those powers as real. The ghosts make sense. Richard’s cursed arm makes sense.
In one of my rehearsals for Antony and Cleopatra last summer, as we were blocking the scene where the watchmen hear mysterious music, an actor asked me, “What’s really happening here?” I think she meant, “Are they really hearing owls or a far-off party or the wind in the trees? What is this music?” I told her, “It’s magical music. It’s the god Hercules leaving Antony. It’s exactly what Shakespeare says it is.” I had the same question when I was directing The Winter’s Tale–is Hermione really a statue? Surely not. My response was the same: “It’s exactly what Shakespeare says it is.” Given the choice between magic and not-magic, I’m going to pick magic every time. Don’t try to explain it or excuse it.
It turns out that nobody is immune to Cleopatra’s magic; some people just take longer to admit it than others. In Brutus and Other Heroines, Harriet Walter begins being a bit frustrated with Cleopatra for her capriciousness. But by the end, she’s completely under the queen’s spell.
In Peter Hall Directs Antony and Cleopatra, Tirzah Lowen relays Anthony Hopkins’ account of Hall’s allowing him to lean on drunkenness as an excuse for Antony’s behavior early on–but eventually asking him to stop playing the surface of the character and begin playing the truth (this is about the scene toward the end of the play where Antony tells his servants to make him one last feast, for him to enjoy one last night of revelry with Cleopatra):
Peter challenged the drunkenness: “It’s exciting, but does it help the relationship between you?” I told him that I couldn’t be maudlin without it, so he let me give up that self-pity and play it as though Antony is aware that he’s finished, that it’s been of his own making, and that all he can do is go along with it.”
Throughout her account of the last two weeks of Hall’s rehearsals, he was constantly pushing actors to let go of the crutches that helped them make sense of the characters early in the process and discover them at face value. By the end of the process, both Hopkins and Judi Dench reflected that the core of the play was the truth and depth of their love.
We are the magic makers. We are the dreamers of dreams.
Sometimes I start to wonder if I need to cultivate a little more cynicism. I think wide-eyed wonder might make me miss some important details. But then I run across words from artists I admire, who seem to be endorsing the path of magic-making. I watched a video by Dough Scholtz-Carlson of the Great River Shakespeare Festival last night, about why we do art: “So much of our life is taken up with just sort of ordinary things. We spend most of our lives just getting by…The great gift we have as artists is our work, that we do every day…is an invitation to be fully engaged.”
This morning, I read an article by Anne Bogart about resonance and the mystical energies that connect us. As a kid, growing up with hippie parents, I would have rolled my eyes at 90% of what she has to say. I’m growing into magic.
I used to think that the theater’s power lay in its ability to create powerful memories in the audience and I felt that my objective as a director was to generate lasting memories. But now I have shifted perspective. I would prefer to create resonance. What should a play or an opera “do?” What is the sign of a successful production? Resonance. I want to create experiences that resonate in the bodies and minds of those who are present in the time set aside for the performance.
Last night, I dreamed I was rehearsing Antony and Cleopatra again. The note I gave was to believe in the magic more. “Deepen and extend the magic until it breathes into the whole space.” In my dream, we were rehearsing in a middle school classroom, all fluorescent lights and vinyl tile and drop ceilings. No audience, no sparks. But I saw Katherine breath in the magic, and I saw Scott exhale it, and I felt Lore and Kat extend it. and we were present in a holy space together.
I woke up smiling and with a dust of magic lingering. I think I’m growing less cynical and more adept at believing in magic every year. A sort of emotional Benjamin Button situation. All I ever want to do is share the magic.