In terms of your work as the director, what process you have followed in terms of casting, production design, staging?
I started with a lot of research into the play, and knew that I wanted to represent Egypt correctly at least, so I was looking for a strong black actress to play Cleopatra. I wanted a cast who could bring an African spirit to the production, and a local energy, people who could interpret the text, because we only have four weeks to rehearse it. And if you’ve had training in Shakespeare, or if you’ve been in a Shakespeare before, it is so helpful from the getgo, so that you can understand the iambic, work with the rhythm, forget about all of the technical stuff, and then act. So there was that. But, for me, the number one, most important thing that I was looking for in auditions was: does this actor … have the ability to play and improvise and work in an ensemble? Because they’ll be touring for four months together … They can’t get bored, they can’t fall into a rut, and they can’t hate each other. So you need open, generous actors who are willing to get up onto a stage and play. And I luckily managed to get all of that in one cast of nine beautiful actors, some who are fresh out of their training and some who have been in the industry for a few years. I started rehearsals off by getting them all into one room and doing a full day of ensemble work. We purposefully did not touch the text for the first two days. We just did ensemble work, chorus work, played with energy, got to know one another, bonded as director and cast, and learnt to trust one another. We then got the amazing Lucy Wilde in, who has an MA in Shakespeare, has been reading Shakespeare since she was seven and is one of the most knowledgeable Shakespeare practitioners I have ever met. She did a workshop on the technique of iambic pentameter with actors, and then worked through the script with them. We got the iambic into everyone’s bodies, and that showed us where the shared lines are, and how fast the conversation moves between Antony and Cleopatra, or how much thought there is in the pauses where there are iambic beats but no dialogue. And from then onwards, we got into rehearsing with the set and the costumes, which is an amazing privilege. We then worked with spatial dynamics, going through each act for meaning first, and then putting each act on the floor. We have worked on creating imagery that makes sense to us, thinking, ‘So this relationship changes here or this argument happens here. How can we put that in the space?’ And since we have been working with images a lot, any information that we actually miss in the play is incorporated as an image. For example, our production starts with an image of Fulvia’s funeral, as without that death, nothing else happens. Without that inciting incident, Antony doesn’t have a reason to return to Rome. He could have just stayed with Cleopatra. So, any information that we may miss out because of the focus on the love story, we have reinserted. And the other thing that I have to point out is that because we have to take the play from three hours to one and a half hours, most of the cuts that we’ve done have been specifically around focusing on the love story, and the politics in so far as it affects the lovers. So, any of the scenes where they are just talking about the war are taken out because this is not Coriolanus, and I think the students have to know the difference between that kind of political play and this tragic love story. So that’s what we do – block out each act, work on line exchanges and relationships and then polish as much as we can! It’s quite a nice, fast-paced process, but, again, if you have actors who are open, and generous, and can play, it’s a lot easier because they just end up offering you things on the spot, and you just say, ‘Okay, cool, let’s do that.’
That’s lovely because it then develops organically out of the energy you’ve developed between them.
Exactly! Because we have a Q&A after the show, we have kept a mindmap in the rehearsal space, so that every time we do an analysis of the text, we have these debates and conversations and we write down the important quotes and the things that have come out of it, because, to me, there’s nothing better than a Q&A where the person playing Antony says, ‘I think Antony is feeling this in this moment’ and then Cleopatra says, ‘No, I think Antony is feeling this in this moment’ … where the actors themselves are able to show two completely different interpretations of the same text, and then the students go, ‘Oh, hang on, I’ve got to open my mind a little. Shakespeare isn’t all black and white. There are a lot of grey areas. There is a lot to argue about.’ Even though he’s put it all in the text, because it’s so layered, it could go either way. So, we try and maintain that openness and discussion as we continue with rehearsals.
What has guided your approach to directing Antony and Cleopatra?
I think it has mostly been guided by image theatre. I’m a highly visual person, so the most difficult thing about Antony and Cleopatra is that it’s very filmic. It switches from Egypt to Rome and Athens to Egypt to Rome … So, for me, the overarching challenge has been to ensure that it makes sense visually. If there is something missing in the text, we will show it, although we certainly won’t be oversignifying. The number one thing is that we ensure it is visually strong so that the language becomes accessible: whether it’s the people in the space and how their relationship creates tension in the space, or whether it’s turning props into something else … For example, we’ve got these beautiful, blue turban scarves that the Romans use and we use that as water and as sails for the ships as well. So, it’s about being able to use your imagination, and about turning the stage into anything that it needs to be with a very minimal set, as well as minimalistic props and costumes, and I think that’s quite similar to how they would have done it in Shakespeare’s time … on a budget, and with very little to signify outside of the language.
What has guided your adaptation of the text?
In terms of the text and the cuts we have made, Rohan Quince is an English teacher who helped us with the cuts – so he gave us a great framework to begin with, and then I went with Lucy and I checked all of the iambic pentameter to ensure that if any of the cuts happened, we were still on the rhythm, because the text is what the students will write their exams on. In terms of other adaptations, I have been very candid with the cast, and I’ve said, ‘There’s a song here that they sing in Egypt. Please can we make it South African.’ We’ve got drums that the cast use and they sing all the time. Fulvia’s funeral at the beginning of the play has a traditional Zulu song, so there are points where I want to pick out something that will make the students go, ‘Hah! I know that. I understand that.’ So we haven’t adapted it to a completely different context at all, but we have recognised that it is happening in Africa, here, in front of these students, in 2018 … In essence, we’re trying to please the puritans while trying to be relevant and modern enough for the students who struggle with Shakespeare.