Antony & Cleopatra: A Very Short Review

by Brenda W. Clough

Globe1 Shakespeare is wonderful. But Shakespeare at the Globe Theater in London, an exact replica of the original playhouse on the south shore of the Thames, is unbelievably cool. I am so glad we did this! Some friends organized it, and we happily piled in for the full experience: lunch at the Swan before the show, the afternoon performance (so that we could see it in daylight, as the Elizabethans did), cushions for the backless benches (recommended!) and the actor’s Q&A after.

Shirt The entire site is magnificently developed — Shakespeare is at least as major a British industry as Harry Potter. There is a learning center, a restaurant and pub, a spendy and irresistible gift shop (see my tee shirt!), all kinds of state-of-the-art modern stuff. But in the middle of all this, suddenly, is the great wooden O of Henry V, and you step back 400 years. The rafters, floors, benches and stage are wood. The roof is thickly thatched, mossy, and supervised by pigeons, open to the sky. The illumination comes from the sun. You can hear the jets and ambulances in the street outside, and if it rains the groundlings get drenched. There are no lights, amps, revolves, projection screens, turntables, or sound systems. There is scarcely any set and only a few props. It is just you and the stage, and you fall into William Shakespeare’s outspread arms like a lover. Take me, Bill — I’m an English major and I’m yours!

Globe2 And in the grand tradition of British theater the Globe has a company. The actors were doing two plays when we were there, alternating them: Julius Caesar and Antony & Cleopatra. These are not exactly linked dramas, although some of the characters carry over (and I am sure there is a savation on costumes and swords). In the US Julius Caesar is staged often and studied in high schools a lot. It is snappy, long on action and history, and there is no sex, which makes it palatable for school boards. Antony & Cleopatra you hardly ever see performed and is studied less.

And oh, what a work of passion it is! Sex and power — what more is there to history, to fiction, to life? A big wad of history is crammed into five acts, and masses of action: several battles on land and sea, the passage of a good ten or fifteen years, multiple suicides and the rule of empires. Clever staging makes it all come to life so that you don’t actually have to know about the Battle of Actium. Straitlaced Rome and the fleshpots of Egypt are all hinted at with minimal props. This is a grand play for the older actor, and the stars are superb. I can’t imagine it done better.

The ebook version of my novel How Like a God is now available from Book View Cafe.

How Like a God, by Brenda W. CloughMy newest novel Speak to Our Desires is out from Book View Café.

I also have stories in Book View Café’s two steampunk anthologies, The Shadow Conspiracy and The Shadow Conspiracy II, as well as in BVC’s many other anthologies, including our latest, Beyond Grimm.



About Brenda Clough

Brenda W. Clough spent much of her childhood overseas, courtesy of the U.S. government. Her first fantasy novel, The Crystal Crown, was published by DAW in 1984. She has also written The Dragon of Mishbil (1985), The Realm Beneath (1986), and The Name of the Sun (1988). Her children’s novel, An Impossumble Summer (1992), is set in her own house in Virginia, where she lives in a cottage at the edge of a forest. Her novel How Like a God, available from BVC, was published by Tor Books in 1997, and a sequel, Doors of Death and Life, was published in May 2000. Her latest novels from Book View Cafe include Revise the World (2009) and Speak to Our Desires. Her novel A Most Dangerous Woman is being serialized by Serial Box. Her novel The River Twice is newly available from BVC.


Antony & Cleopatra: A Very Short Review — 11 Comments

  1. Antony & Cleopatra you hardly ever see performed and is studied less.

    I continue to be astonished by this. I had no idea. We did it at school in the UK, where as far as I know it is still commonly taught to teenagers and certainly commonly performed.

  2. Remember that the curriculum in American schools is usually controlled at the local level. And local school boards are famously wussy — virginal pantywaists who spend their time ransacking the textbooks and school library for items with the least odor of sexuality. It is perfectly OK to stab Julius Caesar 14 times on stage and then wipe your hands in the bottled blood, but to have Enobarbus tell us about how Cleopatra is the hoochy-coochiest thing in Egypt? Never.

    How do local schools stage the latter acts? I have always felt that 15 scenes, each of one tiny section of the battle, must be difficult to sit through.

  3. I love love love the theater company aspect of it. That the role of Octavia is doubled with that of Charmian. That everybody, Augustus Caesar included, is out in front at the opening, dancing to Egyptian drums. That the costumes happily combine bits of Elizabethan garb with Roman or Egyptian outfitting, with the occasional modern pair of pants. That the cast does not hesitate to improvise, if there is an enterprising groundling, or if the pigeons swoop, or if (as in our case) somebody suddenly storms out screaming that they are tired of standing and don’t have a good view.

    • We had a helicopter fly over very close in the first act, and a brief, but considerable rain in the second act (just at the point where the text discusses thunder and rain). The cast rolled with it, occasionally rolling their eyes at the rain, bringing the audience in on the joke. And yet, despite breaking the fourth wall as they clearly did, the play was very very involving.

      I also loved the dance at the beginning and dance at the end, in the best Elizabethan tradition. It would perhaps have been a little unsettling, the dance at the end, at the end of Lear, but here it worked beautifully.

  4. [ ” It is just you and the stage, and you fall into William Shakespeare’s outspread arms like a lover. Take me, Bill — I’m an English major and I’m yours! ” ]

    This expresses fully how intense your experience was.

    I’m so envious. I, of course, with my back, with or without pillows, would not be able to endure the backless seating for longer than 10 minutes.

    It’s interesting to consider that very short list, comparatively speaking, of writers and their works that have never been considered trash, such as the surviving Greek playwrights and Homer (& Co.), Virgil and other Roman writers such as Julius Caesar, , Dante and Boccacio, the French Romance poets such as Chrétien de Troyes, Spain’s Cervantes, — it’s grand there are English writers on that list as well — and many of them!

    Love, C.

    • The thing for you then is those stadium-seat things. It’s a seat cushion with an attached back that folds up. Something like this:

      They rent ordinary cushions at the theater, but this kind of thing you would have to bring in yourself. We saw several people with them, clearly a good idea. And the endurance of the groundlings was amazing. If you are close enough you are allowed to lean on the edge of the stage (and Cleopatra might flirt shamelessly with you!) but the groundlings in the middle just have to stand.

      • And by “shamelessly flirt,” you mean “give a thorough, full-mouthed kiss on the lips.” That guy will remember it as one of the highlights of his life.

        • I’m glad to know she does that at each performance. The young woman accompanying the Lucky Recipient at the show I saw was unsure whether to be proud her boy was chosen, or miffed that he seemed starstruck afterward.

          • At our production it was an older man, who probably will dine out on it for the rest of his life. We also had one person swoon, behind us in the seats, and have to be carried out over the benches. And did they pass out paper sun hats in your production? If as the afternoon passed you wound up in the sun you got one.