Recently, I was talking with an actor about another play entirely, and he happened to mention rather out of nowhere that there existed a sort of performance diary book about the Peter Hall production of Antony and Cleopatra. The one with Dame Judi Dench and Anthony Hopkins. I hadn’t ever heard of this book–although the production is legend–and immediately knew I had to read it.

I’m terrifically curious about what other directors are doing behind the rehearsal room door. I have had the privilege of being an assistant or observer on a few productions, and I love it when a theater offers an “open rehearsal,” but these experiences are fewer than I would like. I gobble up books directors write about directing, but few of them are about a specific production or the mechanical details of the work. They tend to be more theoretical.

One of my favorite books on directing is Conference of the Birds by John Heilpern. The process he describes is completely bonkers and fascinating, but what I love about it is that he describes a process. I wish there were more detail (what exactly does it mean when he says the actors spent the afternoon “doing stick work”?), but I loved how clearly and journalistically he traced the development of that project.

Peter Hall Directs Antony and Cleopatra by Tirzah Lowen, is very much in this category of reporting. She begins with the earliest stages of design and planning, and moves through casting and then methodically through each of the 13 weeks of rehearsal (I’m going to say that again: 13 weeks of rehearsal. I have never had that luxury of time.). I appreciated how she offered a lot of context about the business side of the work at the National Theater in the 80s, and at the end of the book, a reflection on the ultimate impact of this production, for the theater, for the individual actors, and for Shakespeare performance in Britain for decades afterward.

The first section were barely edited journals, a beat-by-beat account of a day here or there in the rehearsal process. The raw directness of this caught my attention in the best possible way

Monday 9 February

Peter Hall is very slow to force the staging. He lets actors feel their way through the sense, their feelings and (newly learned) words before finally making a suggestion.

Other actors watch, mesmerized, as Hall leads Tony Hopkins gently through Antony’s decision to kill himself…From the actor, there is trust and dependency, from the director, guidance and reassurance. The actor needs the director as a sounding board. Conversely, having set the ball rolling, Hall asks to be surprised by his actors’ revelations.

One thing I found rather striking was that Hall and others said repeatedly that in 50 years, Shakespeare’s language will be incomprehensible to audiences, that the language will have changed to the point where we won’t be able to follow the words. I don’t think that’s true–I certainly hope he’s wrong about that!

I also enjoyed the nuts and bolts of running the theater. Peter Hall was, at that time, running the National in addition to directing. Many of his challenges had to do with forces beyond the rehearsal hall–negotiations with unions, government funding cutbacks, etc. This window into the operations side was intriguing and instructive.

Hall and his actors toy with the edges of the characters, and then he presses them to examine the text and make courageous, vulnerable choices. Michael Bryant wrestles with the question of why Shakespeare puts some of the most lyrical language in the play “into the mouth of a cynic.” He initially plays it as if Enobarbus is conjuring up memories to impress his friends. Hall tells him, as all good Shakespeare directors should, to trust the text.

Challenged by Hall: “What do you think of Cleopatra?”, Bryant thinks, says: “He’s captured–in love with her, I suppose.”

And that’s the right answer–everyone is in love with Cleopatra, in spite of themselves.

Hall’s advice to his actors is steady, true, and right. I imagine that most of the actors he worked with had heard these ideas before, but they needed to hear them again, in that moment, for them to click into place.

Peter Hall waits on the sidelines, then moves in to modulate, using the energy, but showing Hopkins how to control it: “You are now in command of the breathing, the scansion, and the rhythm. Choose your way through the lines. It breaks down, Tony, into the big, over-the-top curses, and the cruel, low-voiced threats. It needs to have light and shade. Change the tone at every stop. Come at each new thought differently.”

I couldn’t get over how, despite how well I know this play, Hall pointed out things that I hadn’t thought about. The moment when Antony requests that Cleopatra allow Scarus to kiss her hand is a direct mirror to when he flies into a rage at discovering Thyreus doing exactly that. In another moment, he highlights how Agrippa can respond to the ways in which Caesar becomes tyrannical–the exact situation Julius Caesar’s assassination was meant to prevent. If Agrippa doesn’t just go along with the whole thing, it makes him stand out as a character–and explains his absence from the last bit of the play.

Even though I’ve always (literally always, see also my undergrad thesis) recognized that this is a play full of contrasts, Hall points out some key ones I hadn’t fully appreciated before, reversals of the audience’s expectations:

Look at the reversals: a woman goes to war (she shouldn’t), Antony is never beaten (he is), he is confident, a winner (he breaks down), he is adorable and to be followed (he becomes disgusting), they are the greatest lovers in the world (a rift comes between them), he engenders loyalty (he is deserted), he will lose (he wins), he will win (he loses), he will die heroically (he dies like a stuck pig), she is opportunistic (she is loyal and dies with courage). You know the story; don’t anticipate it, but take each movement as it comes.

And yet, despite Peter Hall being an infinitely more accomplished director than I am, and having, I’ll say it again, thirteen weeks to rehearse and explore, it seems that his production ended up reaching many of the same conclusions that mine did. As explained by Anthony Hopkins:

I’d been playing it like Godzilla, shutting Judi out. Now we’re going for the love, the communication between them. It’s amazing that one has to go through so much just to get back to the original, simple concepts.

By playing Antony larger than life, pumping out energy and approaching the whole thing as an extrovert, I’d got far away from my inner emotions…I’d made Antony strut–the really great spirits don’t.”

I could go on–this whole book was eye-opening and I loved it. I’d also like to read more books in this genre. The reporter’s dispassionate eye relaying the process gave me more space to imagine it than when I’ve read similar books by actors or directors about their own work. I’d welcome any recommendations!

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