The last time the RSC staged Antony and Cleopatra was in 2011, a production by then-Artistic Director Michael Boyd, during Tarell Alvin McCraney’s stint as the company’s International Playwright in Residence. Boyd asked the American dramatist – whose work includes Brother/Sister trilogy of plays, including The Brothers Size, which was performed at the Young Vic, and the ball-culture dragathon Wig Out!, which was staged in the UK at the Royal Court – to start developing his own cut and ‘place it radically’ wherever he saw fit.
This week, McCraney returns to Stratford-upon-Avon with his reordered riff on the historical tragedy, set in 18th Century Saint Domingue on the eve of the Haitian revolution – a pivotal moment in Caribbean colonial history and a place, he believes, ‘where the play can really sing’.
What inspired McCraney, he explains between rehearsals, ‘is that the play is both a history and a tragedy’, the dramatisation of a romance during the Final war on the Roman Republic which is itself based on Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s account. ‘This said to me that we had to make both elements visceral: the audience need to have a concrete relationship to the history of where the play’s set as well as the driving forces that lead to the tragedy. The politics of race, religion and economy are all swelling at this time in this one place,’ he continues, ‘which is very similar to what was happening between Egypt and Rome, but of course that’s so ancient to us that it doesn’t affect us in a palpable way, whereas we’re still dealing with the complexity of this early modern history.’ The comparative immediacy of ‘the burgeoning New World’, McCraney believes, will reinvigorate the text for a twenty-first century audience.
Over a lengthy period of research (‘I won’t bore you with the details’), McCraney was struck by ‘tons’ of parallels between Shakespeare’s characters and the leading figures of the Saint Domingue slave revolt against French colonial power. The most obvious example being that in the play, ‘Caesar in Rome sends Mark Antony to Egypt to be an arm of the empire and quell what’s happening there’ just as ‘Napoleon sent Le Clerc to Haiti, a place popping with revolution, to be the arm of France.’ The playwright is keen to stress, however, that familiarity with this particular period and its precise political conditions is by no means essential to engage with the production; ‘even if people don’t walk away going “Oh, well that’s Napoleon and that’s Toussaint Louverture,”’ he insists, ‘the instant, visceral grab of the time period is still enough to give everybody a charge and a way into the play.’
If his approach to editing the text sounds intellectually rigorous, McCraney’s directorial methods are ostensibly simple, and – perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who’s performed himself – very much actor-led. ‘I come into the room and say “this is the story that we’re telling, what are your instincts?” and the actors respond in various extraordinary ways,’ he muses. McCraney focuses on ‘listening to the actors and figuring out where their instincts are guiding them as they grow closer together as a company,’ and his experience in various theatrical roles, he believes, has taught him that ‘theatre artistry means that you have to know collaboration, and you have to deeply respect what you collaborate to do.’
He’s working with a dramatically scaled-down cast – the play calls for between 17 and 44 actors, while this production is a mere ten-hander. Aside from the practical considerations of touring, this minimalism is partly an artistic decision: asking ‘what does the play need at its core?’ and stripping it to the bare essentials, McCraney argues, ‘allows for the imagination of the play to be more activated’ rather than depending on high production values. But the transportability of the show has also been intrinsic to its overall conception and development; as a co-production between the RSC, the Public Theatre in New York and GableStage in Miami, Antony and Cleopatra will transfer to the US following its Stratford run. ‘What do we need so that we can do this play almost anywhere?’ is, according to McCraney, always ‘an important question in theatre because then it’s accessible to more people.’
McCraney, who became involved with community theatre projects in Miami as a child, is particularly keen to ‘engage young people in the act of theatre early,’ which, he points out, is also part of the RSC’s remit. Diversifying audiences is an integral aim of the American leg of the tour: ‘when we go to Miami,’ he explains, ‘we play for students for absolutely free at ten o’clock in the morning almost every day of the week’. It’s hard to imagine that his passion for the play won’t capture young and old audiences alike – ‘it’s a true history written on a mythic scale’ he reflects, ‘of two people trying to be together and the world that tears them apart’ – not least because he’s still learning from Shakespeare himself. ‘These plays haven’t lasted this long because they aren’t good – they still have lots of lessons for us to take on, and rules that we can then break.’ As for being back at the RSC, ‘I’m sure I try their patience constantly, but they’ve been extraordinarily generous… I just ask for the space here to create in ways that may be different.’
The RSC production of Antony and Cleopatra is at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, from 7th – 30th November; The Colony Theater, Miami Beach, from 11th January – 9 February 2014, and The Public Theater, New York from 18 February- 23 March 2014.