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Antony & Cleopatra Opens June 7, 2013 at the PFI Historic Park

A Conversation in Anticipation of the Opening of Antony & Cleopatra June 7

Isabelle Anderson & Matt Davies appear in CSC's production of Antony & Cleopatra

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I recently chatted with American Shakespeare Center's Co-Founder Ralph Alan Cohen who is directing Antony & Cleopatra for the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company
- Ian Gallanar, CSC Founding Artistic Director


Ian:
What a pleasure it is to have you working with our artists this summer on this extraordinary play. Ralph, around here we say that we're on a quest to answer the question "what makes Shakespeare so great?" How would you answer that question?

Ralph:
One reason that Shakespeare's plays have lasted so long is that they leave room for us. It's not just that his words leave room for actors speaking them to fill them in different – sometimes opposite – ways. It's also that he gives the actors who are not speaking so many options as they listen. And I think the same wide range of response is happening for audiences. My guess is that this is partly due to his fascination with the way words can mean so many different things simultaneously. Audiences sense that the meaning of the work belongs to them, and they feel a kind of ownership of the plays. That's why after 400 years the plays can feel so new. Another reason is historical: Shakespeare and his contemporaries were pretty much inventing the language we speak now, and I think that when we hear it we sense we are at the wellspring of our own words, and our words are who we are, so we sort of experience a rebirth.

Ian:
Your work has dealt with a lot of Shakespeare’s contemporaries as well. Can you compare Shakespeare’s Antony & Cleopatra to some of these other works?

Ralph:
Antony and Cleopatra reminds me how much Marlowe got into Shakespeare's head. Marlowe's Tamburlaine reads like an atlas of the ancient world – if an atlas can sound symphonic – and you hear some of that in Antony and Cleopatra. Marlowe's plays also have a scope that prefigures some of the boundlessness of Shakespeare's play. The frank sexuality of the women in Antony and Cleopatra, and especially of Cleopatra, may have influenced way John Fletcher and John Webster dealt with the roles of women. We just did a production of Fletcher's The Custom of the Country (the first since in 400 years), that had four strong female characters, and if you could combined them all into one, you'd have a half of Cleopatra. And Webster's Duchess in the Duchess of Malfi has Cleopatra's comfort with herself, though in every opposite way.

American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars Theatre

American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars Theatre

Ian:
I've noticed the care and attention that you give to the comic elements of Shakespeare. We at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company are big fans of that. Has the development of that been part of your journey with Shakespeare or was that one of the elements that your recognized and drew you right away?

Ralph:
Both. My first "eureka" moment about Shakespeare was though a comic line. King Henry V has just conquered France and is asking the French princess for her hand in marriage as part of his winnings. She asks him, "Is it possible that I should love the enemy of France?" As a 20-year-old skeptical of the all the fuss about Shakespeare, I expected some romantic BS, but Henry's answer to Kate completely disarmed me with its frank sense of humor: "No, Kate, it is not possible for you to love the enemy of France, but in loving me you shall love the friend of France. For I love France so much, that I will not part with a village of it."

And in the 40 years I've been teaching and directing Shakespeare, I continually rediscover how membrane thin is the line between comedy and tragedy in his plays. His comedies have deadly serious moments in them and his tragedies are full of comic moments. There are Clowns/Fools in Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear, and of course there's a Clown in Antony and Cleopatra. But nowhere is the sad and the glad so tightly bound – even down to the level of a single word or a single syllable – as in Antony and Cleopatra. For example, when Charmian dies at the end the play, she says "Ah, Soldier," and it's up to the actor whether "ah" is joyful or tragic. Both work. Which makes great sense in a play about paradox, about the way opposites are part of one another.

But I need to say that an understanding of the way comedy and tragedy are intertwined seems to be something most of Shakespeare’s fellow playwrights grasped. You find it in Marlowe, Middleton, Fletcher, Beaumont, and Jonson. It's one of the things that makes the work that came out of London from roughly 1580 to 1640 so remarkable. It's why we still go to plays by all those guys.

Ian:
I remember your company from my early days of interest in Shakespeare in the early 90’s (when your company was called “the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express” ). I’m sure a lot of things have changed since then, but what about your work is still similar from those earlier days? Do you have a series of guiding unchanging principals from that era that still guide your work today?

Ralph:
Two things remain the same.

First, the American Shakespeare Center still has a commitment to the idea that our audiences should be in and out in 2 and half hours – including intermissions. Twice in his plays Shakespeare mentions two hours as the length of a play (and the more ponderous Ben Jonson mentions 2 and half).

When I hear of a production of Shakespeare going over 3 hours, I usually suspect that there's some narcissism involved. Someone – a director, a designer, one or more of the actors – has decided the audience has come to see their work more than Shakespeare's and is willing to use up time to show off their artistic contributions. Occasionally, these contributions add value. Less frequently they help illuminate the play. Most frequently, they don't.

Second, we are completely committed to the idea that these plays (in fact all plays until 150 years ago) were written for audiences visible to the actors and to one another. For this reason, Shakespeare, who was an actor, wrote his audiences into the show, and the words makes more sense when actors can speak to or about the audience surrounding them. So the American Shakespeare Center keeps our audiences in the same light as our actors. And we always will.

CSC Artistic Director Ian Gallanar filming Shakespeare Uncovered at the WMPT studios earlier this year

CSC Artistic Director Ian Gallanar filming Shakespeare Uncovered at the WMPT studios earlier this year

Ian:
When we come to see Antony & Cleopatra, what should we look for? If given a hint or two, what will we find that we might not otherwise?

Ralph:
What you should look for is what audiences normally see at Chesapeake Shakespeare's PFI venue: a beautiful space whose size and shape requires generous energy from the actors. Don't look for Greek and Roman costumes or for Jacobean wear. When I was editing the play for this production, I was on a beach in French St. Martin, and I was struck by the way the pleasure principle rules in the Caribbean and thought of Cleopatra. You should also look for the way the play presents two points of view – Roman and Egyptian – on everything from fishing to fighting, from playing to working, from living to dying.

What you should listen for is language as beautiful as any Shakespeare ever wrote. Full of playfulness and paradox. Simultaneously simple and intricate.

The best hint I can give for any production of this play is to avoid expectations. The play resists categories, and if you go to the play trying to put it in a box with a label, you'll miss its what makes it so special.

Ian:
I know a lot of people who have been influenced by your work. Who influenced your work?

Ralph:
Five influences.

In terms of theatre, I would name three people. I have learned a lot about focus and attention to detail watching our co-founder Jim Warren's rigorous and actor-centered rehearsal work.

My sense of how modern productions of the play can work comes from Trevor Nunn and Declan Donnellan. Trevor Nunn, who ran the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1969 to 1986 came out of the Cambridge group and its close attention to the text. He used a collaborative approach, and his shows seemed to come organically out of the actors. I realized the extent of his influence on me when I was looking recently at a videotape of his production ofMacbeth (with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench), which I saw in 1977. The show begins with each of the actors sitting on a box on a bare stage. From our early days at the ASC in 1988 we used boxes for our actors to sit on during the show, and that video shows we must have stolen that idea from Nunn.

As for Declan Donnellan, I first saw his work with Cheek by Jowl in 1986, and was impressed with how it stressed clarity and good storytelling, something we've always strived for. His irreverence for the text and his inventiveness always made those early shows fresh, but without an over-reliance on set design.

In terms of Shakespeare, my two influences are Stephen Booth, who understands the words and the way they work better than anyone has since their author, and George Williams, my dissertation director at Duke, whose unabashed delight in Shakespeare made me want to a Shakespearean and whose belief in excellence made me want to be a good one. Whenever I write or direct, George may think he's in London or Charleston or Durham, but actually he is sitting on my shoulder like the best of angels. To call the impact of these two men on my work "influence" simultaneously understates their importance to me and overstates my success in passing on what they have taught me.
Ian:
Thanks Ralph. I can't wait to share your extraordinary work with our audience.

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