How does a director, in our current Game of Thrones climate, add something new to a story that so famously revolves around lust and war? An obvious answer would be to use plenty of gore, lots of female nudity – but in an it’s-okay-because-it’s-empowering fashion – and perhaps by adding a few swear-words that weren’t in the original text. In his production of Antony and Cleopatra at the Globe Theatre, Jonathan Munby does no such thing. On the surface it is an average Globe production with the usual Shakespearean dialect, live music and drumming, and occasional audience participation. Yet Munby still manages to make an intricately plotted Shakespearean history to be engaging, funny, and accessible to, dare I say it, a young audience.
The comic timing of Clive Wood, Eve Best, and Phil Daniels (famously the cheeky cockney in Blur’s Parklife) is spot on. All three managed to bounce their lines off each other as naturally as possible, and the soliloquys often equated to Shakespearean stand-up. From opening scene in Egypt, where all characters appeared to be having a great time revelling, to the final tragedy, humour was always present. I was expecting, naturally, that the laughs would end with the multiple suicides, but they didn’t – the comedy turned dark, but it remained nonetheless. One may question the emphasis of humour in such a traditionally melodramatic finale, but it was refreshing to see some focus on the wit within Shakespeare’s language, even in the more morose scenes. It takes excellent acting to achieve such a response from an audience, especially when using archaic language, so the entire cast should be commended here – while perhaps the show-stealer was Best’s dry yet passionate portrayal of Cleopatra.
We are so used to seeing montages in film and television, jumping from location to location, that we forget this often happens on stage. Antony and Cleopatra takes place across two continents, with the action occurring both in Alexandria and Rome – yet the play requires leaping back and forth. The minimalist nature of the Globe gave Munby a helping hand here, with there being no need for a set change. Had there been two sets for the two locations, the only possible way would be to split the stage into two; something that I can imagine would be awkward, mostly due to the limitations of the actors’ performing space. Instead the people of both continents shared the same space, moved gracefully out of each other’s way, and often stood together. We knew who was who, with the Octavius’s army standing out dramatically wearing what looked like Jacobean attire, next to Antony’s men wearing the traditional Roman gear. Whatever the political or historical motivation for this decision was, I don’t know – but it did a good job in visually dividing the two armies.
There was a scene before one of the final battles in which both armies were on screen preparing; waving flags, chanting – the usual pre-battle stuff. There was something about the two sides facing each other on the stage – so close yet so distant, that was particularly hair-raising. It would be impossible to do in film – perhaps a director could use split-screen, but it just wouldn’t be the same. It is moments like this that remind us that, despite all of the incredible feats of film and television, there is a certain magic that can only be done on stage.