The National Children’s Theatre kicks off its 2018 Season with William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, which is this year’s Grade 10, 11 and 12 IEB English set work, and this production brings the text to life for learners and teachers alike. The production will be travelling to schools nationwide, from 26 February 2018 onwards. Shakespeare ZA spoke to director Néka Da Costa about her take on the play, NCT, and Shakespeare in South Africa.
Néka Da Costa
Collaborator I Playwright I Director
So here I am! I’m a director, I’m a performer, I’m a creator.
Could you start by telling us about your occupation and the routes you took to get to this point in your career?
I always wanted to be a performer, and in the arts, and I knew that from a very young age. So, I studied a BA in Dramatic Arts at Wits, and that was paired with Sign Language because I always thought there were a lot of things that are common in drama and in Sign Language – both visually based and story-telling based languages. So I developed this interest in theatre for the Deaf, which became my Honours investigation, and then I was lucky enough to get into a Masters programme at RADA, which is the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, and took my investigations further. I discovered that I was far more comfortable in the realm of directing. Being an academic, and being a performer and a practitioner at the same time, I could never quite reconcile the idea of having somebody dictate to me the idea that I was too short, or too tall, or too this, or too blonde, or too whatever to perform in something. So I thought, ‘It’s fine! I’ll just be on the other side of the table!’ And I much preferred the writing, and the directing, and the creating. In fact, before I did my Masters, I ended up creating a whole lot of visual theatre pieces, and directed a couple of commissions here and there. And then I went off to London to do the MA and found that my visual approach and Shakespeare seemed to work really well together. At one point, I was chosen by my classmates to direct a version of King Lear which had them in it, and we ended up using a lot of visual principles – tableaus and image theatre – to tell the story, which was great for King Lear. And I had been involved back here with the Shakespeare Schools Festival, directing a version of Julius Caesar for them. So I have delved into Shakespeare here and there, but this is my first, real interaction with a full-length Shakespeare. So here I am! I’m a director, I’m a performer, I’m a creator.
Is your visual approach something that you want to continue experimenting with in terms of directing Shakespeare’s plays in the future?
I think that one must be really careful when one superimposes things onto Shakespeare. So I’m not imposing any imagery … Shakespeare has this incredible ability to put his stage directions into the words, the imagery into the words. So all I’m doing is trying to lift the imagery, and the movements, and what is already there out of the text, particularly for this audience … The majority of this audience is going to be IEB matric students who are studying the text. I went to the English Teachers’ Conference this last weekend, and their biggest concern is that the students just don’t connect with the highbrow nature of the text, and I thought, ‘Yes, but it’s because it’s meant to be performed.’ It is difficult to sit with a Shakespeare text and read it without seeing it! If you see it, you’ll get it, and that’s where the visual comes in, I think, and I’m just trying to elevate the imagery out of the text.
In terms of your role as director of Antony and Cleopatra for the National Children’s Theatre, could you tell us a bit about the theatre, what you perceive its function to be in our South African context, as well as your involvement with it up to this point? Is this your first engagement with the National Children’s Theatre?
It’s not – I performed for the National Children’s Theatre a couple of years ago before I did the Masters and, since then, I have been an avid watcher of all of the productions here. Through the development of my career and my association with them, I was then asked to come back and direct this Shakespeare for them. And this is the second Shakespeare that they have taken on a National Schools Tour. The first was Coriolanus last year, which was met with such success that they wanted to build on that momentum. In terms of the role of this theatre in South Africa, I think NCT answers a bigger question about the function of the arts in South Africa … This space is a way to instrumentalise the arts. The greatest thing about this theatre, of course, is the shows, and the exposure of the young audience to good, quality theatre. But, more than that, this theatre hosts workshops every weekend for children from disadvantaged communities, and those workshops instil confidence and develop social skills, as well as develop the capacity to be empathetic and diplomatic. So it starts the dialogue really young, where kids can wonder, ‘What kind of role do the arts play in my personal development as a child in South Africa?’ as well as, ‘What can I contribute to theatre as a way to better my own society and my own community?’ So … from that standpoint, this space plays such a pivotal role in social development for young people. And, obviously, the quality of their productions is also notoriously high. It is not just ‘oh children’s theatre, let’s sing and dance’. For example, Sarah Roberts is the resident designer here – she is currently designing The Colour Purple at the Joburg Theatre. So she’s a prolific designer, and happily working in this space, because she believes, as does the National Children’s Theatre, that you shouldn’t diminish theatre just because it’s for the youth. Theatre is for everybody, and we should aim for quality theatre and for good craftsmanship. So that’s what has attracted me to this space, and I am honoured that I have been called in to do this production, because I want to add to the ethos that the theatre has.
... you shouldn’t diminish theatre just because it’s for the youth. Theatre is for everybody, and we should aim for quality theatre and for good craftsmanship.
What is your opinion of Antony and Cleopatra as the IEB setwork in comparison to Coriolanus as the previous setwork? What is your opinion of its relevance … here, now?
Well, where Coriolanus is highly politicised, and full of war, Antony and Cleopatra enables us to delve deeper into personal conversations … So, moving from Coriolanus as political to Antony and Cleopatra as more personal, a personal love story, is really interesting purely in terms if enabling our audience to relate to the tragedy. I think that the students will find it more relatable because they will see the relationships … they will see its Bold and the Beautiful quality, but we will hopefully be able to get across to them that ‘actually, guys, it’s not Romeo and Juliet; it is a far more mature and political love story’. It is a love story that happens in private places, but affects the public and affects the politics outside of itself. And it is the story of the demise of a relationship. It is not the perfect relationship from the beginning ... I am also ecstatic that we can have the conversation about racial dynamics, about Africa and Shakespeare, about decolonisation, about that kind of relevance in Antony and Cleopatra. So hopefully some of the students will be able to pick up on those dynamics. I particularly cast this production with that in mind, thinking, ‘I cannot have Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra.’ I cannot have that, or rehash that, because in our context, we need to represent Egypt correctly, and the students themselves need to see actors who look like them – in Africa. That’s our ‘in’ – that’s our relevance. And we have to pay homage to that. So that’s why I think it’s great. In Antony and Cleopatra, we have gender politics, and a woman in power, and the fall of a male figure, which, in our current conversations of our #MeToo campaigns, is all unbelievably topical for the students, and I hope they pick up on that.
Can you elaborate on what you have noted in terms of Cleopatra’s power and prominence as a female character?
Well, it’s important to remember that, sure, she did some crazy things to stay in power, but she is not just a sex symbol. She knows that she is beautiful, and she knows that she has sex appeal, but she is clever enough to use that to her advantage politically. So she is not just a one-track woman there to be a woman and to annoy the men by being in power. She is there because she is intelligent, and because she is capable of running a country, and running an empire, really. And she is the only character who maintains her honour even in death … Even though she is going to be captured, she still makes her own choice. Her oppressors cannot oppress her because she chooses her own way to die, and that’s also echoing so many of the dialogues we are having about gender equality and feminism. If the students can just pick up some of those dynamics, I think an incredibly beneficial conversation can come out of it.
What are your thoughts on the contrast between Egypt and Rome as a corollary or analogue for West and Non-West?
Well, in terms of representing Egypt and Rome in this production, neither the production designer nor I wanted to go for clichéd versions of Rome and Egypt. We didn’t want Cleopatra to be full of gold necklaces, with a snake around her neck. And we didn’t want Rome to be looked at as only … metal and armour. So what we’ve gone for instead is Egypt as textured and patterned, and Rome as plain, in beiges and greys. I think it is a great metaphor for how we want to view the two places – that, yes, Rome is austere and lavish as one of the empires of the world at that point, but it’s actually in Egypt that we find the most visceral experiences and it’s Egypt that is complex, and it’s because of its complexity that it’s interesting. And also, Egypt is definitely portrayed in a better light than Rome is in the play. Egypt is where everybody wants to be, and Cleopatra, as a representation of Egypt, holds the most power in the play… so it is inverting some of the colonising politics that we are so used to. That Rome or the West is grappling for power, whereas Egypt just naturally seems to have all the power, and all the gold, and all the minerals and resources, and the appeal … is incredibly interesting, and something we have sought to portray in this production. Everything lies with Egypt, and we want to point out the difference between the dutiful Rome and the rich Egypt. At the same time, we are showing that both of these places are very complex. They are not just decadent OR dutiful. They have to clash with each other in various ways throughout the piece, so we had to leave room for that as well.
Can you elaborate on what you said in terms of the private and public nature of this love story? Does the existence of this love story across boundaries suggest that the geopolitical can be transcended?
I cannot help thinking, ‘Yes it can be transcended but we cannot ignore the results of it.’ These two people have this relationship that they probably shouldn’t have. Yes, it works for them and, yes, the geopolitical can be and is transcended and neither of them are apologetic about it. But their society flounders around that, trying to grapple with it. And even though the play happens in private spaces and we only hear about public happenings, whatever they do between themselves affects the society at large … You know, I didn’t realise before I analysed the play that Cleopatra starts at age 39 and Antony starts at age 53, and the play spans over ten years. So, it doesn’t start off as young love and it certainly doesn’t end with a youthful energy, so it has the gravitas that Romeo and Juliet lacks. I think it’s so interesting because the children might start off as seeing it as young and playful but there has to be a realisation that, actually, they are making mature decisions, considering what is around them, and considering what they want and need from each other in terms of the political weight of their roles in their separate societies … I think that the tragic fall of Antony is that he becomes a version of himself that he no longer recognises. He constantly tries to live up to the previous image of himself as a soldier, an honourable man, but his love for Cleopatra slowly changes him, and so much so that … he hardly recognises that he is changing. But I think we can say that all the way through, Antony actually knows that Cleopatra has that power. And she knows that too. And so, nowhere do you see him saying, ‘I didn’t see this coming. She’s a temptress!’ He knows it is he who consciously said yes and that’s the difference here, which I like.
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.
Have you encountered any difficulties in directing this production?
Not as yet. I think that the difficulty in the initial stages of doing a Shakespeare is learning the words without feeling inhibited or controlled by the language – trying to own it yourself so that the language come from a very natural place. By the beginning of the third week, the actors are off book so that we have a full week to play with the language and see how we can breathe into the language. A lot of people tend to separate the language from the body, and we don’t realise that everything we say comes from an impulse. It is physical or mental, so that’s the challenge. This ensemble is great and very committed, so I haven’t had difficulties within the ensemble. It is more about grappling with the vastness of the text, and the vastness of the metaphors, and the vastness of the meaning, and the imagery that comes out of that.
What would you say is the primary aim of your production? When the students leave the world of the production, what is the one thing you want them to have learnt or experienced?
That Shakespeare isn’t just a dead, white guy. You know, the current debate is: should we still have Shakespeare as a core part of our school syllabus? I don’t know. That’s certainly not for me to answer at the moment in terms of the English syllabus, as I want Drama to remain part of our literary study, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be Shakespeare. Certainly in terms of the matric Drama syllabus, the benefit of Shakespeare is that the actors learn to work with heightened language. But, regardless of what you may feel in terms of Shakespeare’s relevance in the curriculum, if audiences can walk away going, ‘I see something of my life in that story’ or, ‘I recognise a character that I know in that story’, then that’s enough because that breeds curiosity, and hopefully that will lead to an understanding and appreciation for the theatre, and for the text.
What is your general approach to Shakespeare in South Africa?
I think it has to go case by case, honestly, depending on the context, the intentions, the people who are producing it. I think you cannot afford to present Shakespeare in a dated fashion, nor can you afford to assume that Shakespeare is for an elite audience. So, Shakespeare has a place in some contexts, and he has relevance in some contexts, and it can just as easily be legitimately torn apart and used in other contexts. So I think it really does depend on the circumstances. But maybe if Shakespeare were an African woman, I’d have a different answer.
... maybe if Shakespeare were an African woman, I’d have a different answer.
What are your favourite lines from Antony and Cleopatra?
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry,
Where most she satisfies.
It tours from February - May at IEB schools countrywide, with a showcase performance from 18 - 21 April at the National Children's Theatre
The Creative Team:
Produced by National Children’s Theatre and Renos Nicos Spanoudes
Directed by Néka da Costa
Set and Costume Design by Sarah Roberts
Ben Kgosimore as Mark Antony
Sanelisiwe Yekani as Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt
Sibusiso Mkhize as Enobarbus
Cassius Davids as Octavius Caesar
Carlos Williams as Pompey
Megan van Wyk as Iras and Octavia
Campbell Meas as Charmian
Neo Sibiya as Eros and Dolabella
Kevin Koopman as Alexas and Scarus
Ticket prices are R100 per learner
For enquiries and bookings: Phone 011 484 1584 or e-mail email@example.com
Look out for Part 2 of Interview Series #7 during March, in which we conduct a group interview with the cast involved in NCT's production of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.