Features Q&A and Interviews Published 16 June 2014

Soldier, Statesman, Lover

"There's a deep vein of betrayal running through the play." Jonathan Munby on directing Antony and Cleopatra for the Globe.
Laura Seymour

At the Globe’s 400th anniversary production of Julius Caesar in 1999, Antony delighted audiences when he bounded in in a leopardskin loincloth, leaping into a crowd of Romans in jubilant, careless contrast to their authentically starched ruffs and intricately re-imagined doublets-and-hose (that the knitting patterns for some of their stockings were three pages long and involved ultra-difficult moss stitch and tiny 2 ¾ needles bears witness to the painstaking task of Elizabethan authenticity).

Cleopatra, too, knows how to make an entrance: according to popular legend, she orchestrated her first meeting with Antony by rolling herself up in a carpet he was having delivered; winning his heart when the rug was dramatically unfurled. And Antony and Cleopatra is filled with glittery, gaudy, burnished visuals: Antony reuniting Enobarbus with the stash of treasure he earnt by betraying him, Antony’s tragi-comic botched suicide, the servants who (in an ambiguous stage direction that famously threatens to puncture the tragic tone) ‘heave Antony aloft to Cleopatra’ awaiting him atop her monument. Indeed in 1873 at Drury Lane, FB Chatterton reduced the play to a series of segmented, heightened visual displays: twelve discrete scenes involving balletic processions and thirty choirboys.

Yet this rich play has also attracted some of the actors most famous for their ability to bring out the profundity and intricacy in Shakespeare’s characters, for example Laurence Olivier, Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave and Charlton Heston. Joining this line in 2014 are Eve Best and Clive Wood, taking the title roles in Jonathan Munby’s new production of the play at the Globe.

This latest Antony and Cleopatra aims to lay bare the protagonists’ loving depths as well as their fungoing, irreverent surfaces. Munby previously directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe in 2008, and he tells me that he ‘jumped at the chance’ to return to this particular stage, especially with Antony and Cleopatra, a play he’d knew particularly well, having studied it at school and pondered it ever since.

Munby sees Antony and Cleopatra as very much as sequel to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (these were probably first performed nearly a decade apart in 1607 and 1599 respectively). He explains that his production centres around ‘the new humanity, the new human fallout’ as Octavius Caesar tries to take control of Rome after Julius’ death and during Antony’s many lopsided successes and ultimate failures.

For Munby, Antony is intrinsically linked to Rome’s fate, ‘the tragedy of Anthony and Cleopatra is about the disintegration of Anthony [as a] symbol of the Roman Empire’. Thus, he tells me, Antony – played by Clive Wood – needs to embody a believably ‘superhuman’ idol in order to make it all the more devastating when Antony disappoints those who revered him. Interestingly, Munby reveals that Antony is ‘one of the most unpopular roles’, as ‘people feel it is Cleopatra’s play’. Luckily, however, ‘Clive was brave enough’, and indeed ‘very keen’ to take on the role of ‘this warrior…this Herculean god’. Best, Munby says, Wood is a ‘great leading classical actor’, who made Antony ‘the perfect combination of soldier, statesman, and lover’.

Thus, Wood was able to bring out the ‘deep vein of betrayal running through the play’ as those who relied on Antony, and not least his friend Enobarbus, find themselves floundering. Munby says that Phil Daniels is able to bring out the ‘real heart’ of the character of Enobarbus, especially his ultimate disconsolateness: ‘he’s devoted to Antony and is guided by him and then finds him to be a false idol…the brilliance of Phil Daniels is that he is able to handle the humanity of that’.

Best was approached especially for the role of Cleopatra, thanks, Munby tells me, to her expert understanding of the Globe space and how it works, and of course to her skill, ‘Eve is an exceptional actress who is able to turn in an instant from one thing to the next, she is able to capture all of the infinite variety of Cleopatra and all of the changeability’. Munby, ‘blessed to have the perfect cast’, says that together Best and Wood brought to the Globe the ‘great wit and heart’ necessary for ‘the balance of the play’.

He tells me that though Cleopatra is ‘dedicated to Antony even beyond death’, this does not mean that she should not be described as a martyr to a cause. Rather, in that ‘she controls the course of her own destiny’, she is ‘a martyr to her own cause’. Munby wanted this Cleopatra to express ‘a very real sense of grief about using the love of her life’: ‘an authentic love…not just a public front’. As such, it was vital to the play that Best expressed ‘something fundamental and deep’, so that ‘the stakes of that relationship are high enough for it to cost’.

 Jonathan Munby’s production of Antony and Cleopatra is at the Globe Theatre, London, until 24th August 2014.

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Laura Seymour

Laura Seymour is writing a PhD thesis on cognitive theory and Shakespeare in performance. Her poems have appeared in several journals such as 'Iota', 'Envoi', 'Ambit', and 'Magma'. Her book 'The Shark Cage' won the 2013 Cinnamon Press debut collection prize and is forthcoming in 2015.

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