—Oliver Taplin, Greek Tragedy in Action
I referred to these previously as “embellishments,” as good a word as any to describe the non-necessary activities and geegaws appearing on stage, particularly (as with Barbara Gaines in Chicago) in the staging of old chestnuts.
I vowed last year to be less negative (see my last post of the year), but it is hard to restrain oneself, especially after seeing such a piece of work as National Theatre Live’s Anthony and Cleopatra shown yesterday near me. The acting was bad, especially of Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo, though you have the impression that they were directed to play everything so camp.
It was impossible to escape the impression that the play itself is ridiculous. Surely the real historical persons were more substantial—Octavian referred to in the play as Caesar, Cleopatra portrayed not as a queen but a diva; and Mark Antony whom Shakespeare tries to work out as some kind of Othello. It felt like a grab bag of leftovers or recycled items from other Shakespearean plays: there’s the madness of Lear, the mistaken belief that the beloved has committed suicide, and so on. The action of a tragedy in which every character dies by suicide leaves something to be desired—maybe the Greeks done it but Shakespeare failed to make it plausible. (One line by Cleopatra about not wanting to be paraded in the streets of Rome hit the mark; but the “star-crossed lovers” motif failed especially when the supposed great love between the two protagonists was hardly supported until the post-mortem soliloquies.)
It would be fair to give Shakespeare the benefit of the doubt: how would a well-acted, less campy and more restrained production come off? Besides, the script was disjointed with elements being presented out of sequence, such that the dramatic line felt broken, and everything drawn out too long. (I regret in my playwriting career that I followed Shakespeare’s model as to length and verbosity—at the time I began writing two-acts were in vogue, whereas now all is 70-90 minutes sans interval—when the model of Plautus or Terence might have served me better.) Alas, my life remaining does not have an extra 3.5 hours to spare for Anthony and Cleopatra no matter how good the next production is reputed to be.