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 is travelling to schools nationwide until May 2018. Shakespeare ZA spoke to the cast and director, Néka Da Costa, about their take on the play, NCT, and Shakespeare in South Africa.
Could you tell us about the characters you are each portraying and describe your specific perception of them?
Carlos Williams (Pompey): Pompey is a power-hungry leader who has a very strong sense of honour, which doesn’t necessarily turn out too well for him.
Cassius Davids (Octavius Caesar): I think Caesar’s very ambitious, also set in his ways, very conniving, very smart.
Megan van Wyk (Iras and Octavia): Iras is a waiting woman for Cleopatra and she is quite all over the place, and ditzy and loyal. Octavia is the sister to Caesar, and she is self-serving, but also loyal to Caesar.
Kevin Koopman (Alexas, Varrius, Scarus, and Diomedes): I think I’ll speak about Alexas. Alexas is very materialistic. He is proud, but, more than anything, he is infatuated with Cleopatra.
Campbell Meas (Charmian and Agrippa): Charmian, one of Cleopatra’s ladies in waiting, is loyal; she is witty; she’s chacharag. And then Agrippa is one of Caesar’s soldiers, and I think he is very loyal to Caesar, and he enjoys violence and chaos.
Sibusiso Mkhize (Enobarbus and Mardian): Enobarbus is a very loyal friend to Antony. He’s a thinker, and he’s a very easy and malleable character. He shifts very nicely between the Egyptian setup and the Roman lifestyle.
Neo Sibiya (Eros and Lepidus): Lepidus is part of the Triumvirate with Antony and Caesar, but I think he’s the weakest link in the Triumvirate. He is probably an alcoholic. He is very easy-going; he is laid-back; he is a peace-maker and he just wants everyone to be happy. Conflict and tension make him a bit nervous.
Sanelisiwe Yekani (Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt): I think that Cleopatra is the epitome of a queen or a strong woman who finds herself truly in love; and we then get to witness her journey of, I suppose, opposites, where she tries to balance her power and her love.
Ben Kgosimore (Mark Antony): Mark Antony is passionate. He is also quite strong, which is something that has worked for him in the past, but I think that at this point of his life, the strength that led to his becoming a general does not really count anymore. I think he is quite playful, playful in that in the 21st century, he could even be categorised as a player. He leads with his heart, and sometimes that’s good for him, and sometimes that’s bad for him.
Have there been challenges or surprises in interpreting your character?
Sibusiso (Enobarbus and Mardian): I noticed with Enobarbus that you really need to get the imagery and sense of what he is talking about, because he speaks in prose. So you need to understand what you say, because at first it’s just a bunch of words that make no sense really. So, personally, to me as an actor, it was challenging to make meaning and sense of the words, but it really pushed me to work hard, because Enobarbus is the one who relays the story.
Ben (Antony): I think my first introduction to Mark Antony was in Julius Caesar with his “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” … and there’s a strange relationship that Shakespeare has with the actual historical facts and with what he finally presents in the work. I understood Mark Antony to be a Roman General … If you think ‘Roman General’, you think, this must be a tough man, but, starting from Julius Caesar, he became a leader because he was able to reach soldiers here (pats chest). He was able to convince them and to get them to put their souls on the line by appealing to their hearts. That’s how he became a general, and, I suppose, that is my impression of him now.
Sanelisiwe (Cleopatra): It was interesting, because you hear about Cleopatra as this strong character, this woman who was the fall of a great soldier, but, after reading the work, and learning from our sessions, and talking about her more, and trying to understand her lines and the things she says … my interpretation of her is that she is actually one of the weakest people in the play, and the reason I say this is because I feel that in her commands, in her decisions, in her there is a panicking happening, and being a woman, especially back in those days, power doesn’t belong to you, you know. That is how it’s sold. So, you have to keep it, to try keep it, and then suddenly you are falling in love, and losing control … she is panicking. She is trying to not to lose. She might have power, according to other people, but she doesn’t feel at peace with that power. So, I don’t think she is the strongest character in the play, although it may appear that way.
Coming into this, I understand the power and the influences she has, but what are the many things motivating what she says, and what decisions she makes?
Néka (the director of Antony and Cleopatra): Would anybody like to disagree with or challenge that?
Ben (Antony): I think that if there is one thing that Cleopatra has, it is urgency. Yes, as a woman in ancient times, she was not afforded a voice or she was not supposed to be strong, but what Cleopatra has, what no other woman has, is urgency. To express yourself, even in a way that is panicky, just to be able to express your emotion … is actually quite a strength on its own.
Megan (Iras and Octavia): I also think that she is clever, and that that’s one of her biggest strengths. She knows exactly how to play her cards. She is playing constantly, and when Thyreus says to her that Caesar wants to help her, she makes herself subordinate to him. She is playing him, and then Antony sees that and he misinterprets it, and she says, “Not know me yet?” And that is so telling of who she is, I think. And in the end, she does have the most power because she decides to take her own life and that is her choice, completely.
Sibusiso (Enobarbus and Mardian): I agree and disagree with what you said. Remember the status game that we played? I think, internally, that you might think of Cleopatra as not having power, but the kind of influence that she has on the people around her is very powerful, especially Antony … the things that you make him do, you know? But also just to draw back on some of the lines that Enobarbus says … There is a scene with Varrius when Enobarbus says that Antony “will to his Egyptian dish again”, which shows the force and attraction implicit in you as Cleopatra, so I think, internally, you might think as an actor and as playing Cleopatra that your status is very low, but the kind of influence that you have in society is very strong.
Sanelisiwe (Cleopatra): I agree, definitely. She is smart, and she is comfortable in her sexuality, and Antony is attracted to her to that degree, but I also think that my approach to trying to see this particular side of her is rooted in understanding that there is one way that she has been written in by a male writer. Coming into this, I understand the power and the influences she has, but what are the many things motivating what she says, and what decisions she makes? So I agree with you, but, as a performer, I need to find the other side, the texture, the nuance of her.
Kirsten (Shakespeare ZA interviewer): Just in terms of what you said about Cleopatra’s motivations, I was just listening to what all of you said, and I was struck by this difference between Cleopatra’s private and public self: how is she perceived versus how does she perceive herself? Perhaps a lot of her motivation lies in her own fear of weakness as a woman in this society, and this fear, and the weakness that she perceives in that fear, is something that motivates her to be strong, to take power from people because she craves it.
This next question is for Antony and Cleopatra: What has been your experience of depicting a more mature love story in comparison to, let’s say, Romeo and Juliet?
Ben (Antony): The thing is … we have all had the Romeo and Juliet kind of love, where you discover love for the very first time, where it is like, “Oh my God. You are the universe.” In Antony and Cleopatra, however, Antony is on his fourth or fifth wife, depending on which source you take it from, and at this stage of your life, you know what you want, you know how to get it, and you are present for every choice that you’re making. So I think that he makes a conscious decision to come to Egypt and to be with this woman. He knows the consequences at the end of the day. He knows that he is going to be shunned by the Romans ...
Sanelisiwe (Cleopatra): That’s the thing … They are aware of consequences.
Néka (the director of Antony and Cleopatra): Just in terms of their partnership, it’s interesting to note that Ben and Sanelisiwe play a game in every scene that they have together. If Antony wins this conversation, he gets one point, and if Cleopatra wins that conversation, she gets a point, so that we, as the audience, get the sense of a ball being thrown between them, because they are constantly and consciously either provoking or placating each other as needed for that particular moment. In this way, they are always working off of each other – acting maturely or immaturely … They choose to be immature sometimes, and that’s fine, because that’s their choice.
To open up a question again to everyone:
What drew you to this production? Why Shakespeare?
Cassius (Caesar): I was actually very interested in playing Caesar, because, at first glance, he can be viewed as the main antagonist of the play, which is exciting for me because the challenge is then to find a way of playing him where it is not about his antagonising someone but actually about his having this force within him … this devotion to duty, in fact, that pushes him to antagonise Antony. I just want to bring the idea of his being an actual person who believes in what he believes in to the role … Also, Shakespeare’s the bomb.
... Shakespeare’s the bomb.
Megan (Iras and Octavia): Personally, I have a big love for the classical texts. But, in addition to that, in terms of the broader spectrum, a lot of people ask: is Shakespeare still relevant in South African society? Why are we still doing this? Well, this is a set work for English students and I believe that if you are going to be studying literature, the best you can do is look at the epitome of the use of the language … and that can be found in Shakespeare. And I believe that we need to be performing it because that was what it was written for, and if you see it and hear it and you can experience the richness of the language, you’re experiencing it as it was meant to be experienced.
Neo (Eros and Lepidus): I was interested in taking part in an ensemble piece because I always find that Shakespeare provides the best opportunities for ensemble work. He frequently has big groups of people on the stage … and it’s always about one single event unravelling a whole community and about witnessing the repercussions amongst all those people. And then the relationships he creates! They are always incredibly interesting to me.
In your opinion, what makes Antony and Cleopatra relevant as a set work for these students now, today, in SA?
Ben (Antony): In terms of accessibility, in South Africa, in 2018, we are performing a Shakespeare text where we have a black Antony, a black Cleopatra, and a predominantly black cast … I just think that it shows the kids that we are going to perform to that there are multiple ways you can look at the play, and at Shakespeare, and that you can also put yourself in the shoes of this particular character and say, “Okay. Let’s read this world as if I am in it. How can I read Shakespeare and look at it with the people I know in my life?” Maybe it’s not Rome and Egypt. Maybe it’s Soweto and Alexandra … you know? It is important to make Antony and Cleopatra accessible to these kids, and I believe that that’s what makes our particular production relevant.
Carlos (Pompey): I also think that gender politics are a big issue. This play is an opportunity to expose young people to a powerful, female lead, and to associate that status and that power with a strong, African woman, especially because status and success tend to have a rigid male paradigm.
Néka (the director of Antony and Cleopatra): I also think from a directorial point of view, I chose to cast more women than I was supposed to. Lepidus and Agrippa are supposed to be males. The messengers are supposed to be males, as well as attendants, soldiers … and I thought, “No, no, I am fighting for more women.” I think it is important to play with gender politics even as you represent them. Even as you transform.
To the women who are playing men, what has your experience been of the process of putting on a male character?
Neo (Eros and Lepidus): Well, when you’re told to play a man, you have this macho picture in your mind, but what surprised me about the male characters, especially Lepidus and Eros, was actually finding that they have such a softness in them, especially Lepidus, because his thing is actually representing peace; he does not like conflict. He doesn’t actually want to go to war even though he is in an organisation that basically thrives on war. So, for me, it is important to balance that strength with softness … and to find that softness in him and say, “It’s okay! He can be a softer man. And that doesn’t make him any less of a man.”
So, for me, it is important to balance that strength with softness … and to find that softness in him and say, “It’s okay! He can be a softer man. And that doesn’t make him any less of a man.”
Campbell (Charmian and Agrippa): Personally, playing a man is always fun; I always enjoy actually putting on those bodies just because you don’t often get to play someone like Cleopatra, or a woman who is strong and opinionated and who can do whatever she wants. You don’t get those opportunities a lot, so whenever you get a male role, you think, “This is probably an easier role to play because men are so opinionated and always written a little bit better than women.” … They are a little bit more complex when it comes to how they are written, especially by other men. In fact, it’s also interesting playing these characters in different performative spaces, regardless of their gender. In Cleopatra’s world, we are a little bit softer; we are more malleable. But in Caesar’s world, whether you are a man or a woman, there are very strict rules governing how you operate in that world. And it’s less about, “I am trying to be a man” and more about trying to stay within the rules that this person has set out for this space, which, I think, is a very interesting way to play it. In fact, this is something that Néka has emphasised in the spacing of the play, in the sense that space is very distinct, so I think space and how you perform in those spaces speak a lot to the relevance of the play for so many people. Yes, we are talking about thousands of years ago, but you also see these characters moving through three different spaces and how those spaces affect them.
What are your thoughts on the contrast between Rome and Egypt, then, as a corollary or analogue for West and Non-West?
Neo (Eros and Lepidus): I don’t know if it’s an analogue, but one of the things that I observed is how power operates differently in each space. For example, in Rome, when I play the Roman characters, power feels very performative. It’s like saying, “We put on power! Yeah! Let’s go get them boys and be violent! We are just going to take it and be macho and have pep talks all the time!” Whereas in Egypt, it feels like power moves much more organically. It’s like asking, “What needs to be done?” and then doing it, while asking others to weigh in. It feels like there’s such an abundance of power and resources in Egypt, whereas, in Rome, it feels like we have to fight for what we don’t have ... so they have to keep on taking and taking and getting and getting … That power is so much more violent and intrusive. Where Cleopatra says, “I have power, I have status, and now, how do you react?” the Romans yell, “Give me your status! Give me your power!”
Néka (the director of Antony and Cleopatra): It's like Egypt itself is far more powerful in its own right. It is far more complex in its own right, than Rome ever was.
Neo (Eros and Lepidus): Egypt is far more civilised in many ways!
Néka (the director of Antony and Cleopatra): It is far more civilised, yes, in its own right, and I think that we are trying to depict that as much as we can with Cleopatra. It's incorrect to just call Africa exotic. But the Romans do; they think it’s exotic. They think it’s drinking and wine and feasts and whatever. In that way, it is topical. In that way, it says to people, “Actually, this is the most ancient matriarchy. It is a system of power that has worked for years. There are riches, there are resources, and there is intellect here. Don’t underestimate that.”
... when I play the Roman characters, power feels very performative. It’s like saying, “We put on power! Yeah! Let’s go get them boys and be violent! We are just going to take it and be macho and have pep talks all the time!” Whereas in Egypt, it feels like power moves much more organically.
What do you personally hope the students leave the production remembering?
Ben (Antony): Well, I hope, not to jump the gun or anything, that any black boy that watches this thing thinks to himself, “I can be an Antony as well.” I also think that all those young black girls in the schools can look at Cleopatra and think to themselves, “Wow, I can also be a queen. I have a queen inside me.”
Kevin (Alexas, Varrius, Scarus, and Diomedes): I hope that all those kids who are forced to read Shakespeare when they really don’t want to, who get frustrated with the language and feel like there is no point in doing it anymore … I hope that those kids, after watching the play, can get a firm grasp of the story, even if it’s just through intention from the way the characters are portrayed, the way the lines are said.
Megan (Iras and Octavia): My biggest wish for people coming to watch the show is that they get an impression of fun. We have a lot of fun and enjoyment in acting in this play, and I think that there’s a lot of fun to be had between the characters, and we have a drinking song that we just love performing and I think if they can leave feeling like, “Sho, I really enjoyed that,” and they see that you can have fun in performing Shakespeare, in reading it, that will, for me, mean that we have done a wonderful thing.
Carlos (Pompey): Well, we have to deliver the play in a certain way. There are certain themes and certain moments that we have to hit and touch on in a specific way so that they have that material to write their essay questions with. And I hope that after watching the play, these kids can at least go and develop their own opinions, because at the end of the day, they’re watching a rendition. They’re watching one point of view of this magnificent story and I hope that if they’re busy reading the text again or they’re busy writing their essays, they ask themselves, “But, what if…?”
Ben (Antony): Because at the end of the day, I also think that one of the biggest things about Shakespeare is: you can interpret it the way you want to.
Neo (Eros and Lepidus): I think it’s also important also for the students to see themselves in the stories. I think a lot of it has to do with representation, but a lot of it also has to do with accessibility. Because sometimes teachers pitch Shakespeare in a way that makes his plays seem like this mountain that you have to overcome and climb. But, hopefully, in this play, they’ll be able to see themselves, and see that this is just a story about two people who fell in love, and about the people who didn’t want them to fall in love at that time, which is something that is universal, which they can automatically connect with. Then I think it’s something that they care about.
They’re watching one point of view of this magnificent story and I hope that if they’re busy reading the text again or they’re busy writing their essays, they ask themselves, “But, what if…?”
What is your favourite aspect of the production? And what will you take away from this production?
Neo (Eros and Lepidus): For me, it’s about the words, the writing and how to tell a story. That is what I actually enjoy … just reading it and seeing it unfold. There’s the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule, but actually Shakespeare tells all the time, and there’s a beauty in that!
Sibusiso (Enobarbus and Mardian): The one thing that I enjoy and that I’ve seen in every production I do is the music that happens. So I’m just loving the music that we are incorporating in the piece, as well as the moments that we found to put the music in … I was one of those kids in school who never liked Shakespeare, to be honest. So having to do Shakespeare now on a professional level is also satisfying because I am finding the joy in it. I am finding also as an actor a kind of use for it, the technicality behind it, the writing, the beauty of understanding what you’re was saying, and researching what you’re saying.
Carlos (Pompey): For me, one of the things is we make quite a few tableaus, these still moments on stage and it’s so beautiful and easy to get lost in it, even on stage, if you glance at what’s happening there … It’s just such a beautiful moment and you get sucked into it, which I love every time, in every moment that we do. I just think it’s fantastic.
Campbell (Charmian and Agrippa): My favourite part is not in the play … it’s the people, the ensemble of the production, because it’s always so great to have a cast and a director that say, “Play, and then we will sort out the rest later.” It’s just so fun to be given an opportunity to make mistakes, and make mistakes in front of 8 other people, and have them say, “Ah, we support that mistake. Actually, let’s turn that mistake into a thing.” So, for me, it’s always great to work with people who are just willing to play and give of themselves.
Kevin (Alexas, Varrius, Scarus, and Diomedes): There are two lines I really like: “Fie, wrangling Queen!” and, “Antony, leave thy lascivious wassails.” I love those two lines … just the way the words come off the tongue. It’s so memorable. But what I like the most are, funnily enough, the moments when I’m not on stage, and I’m watching, and I get to see the story unfold when other people are doing it. And you say, “Oh my God. That’s spicy, or that’s interesting!” So, listening and watching would have to be my favourite parts so far.
Megan (Iras and Octavia): I think my favourite part of this whole process is also a seconding of what you just said, Kev. It’s finding that I enjoy watching another actor enjoying and understanding and playing with what he or she is saying. So that brings me joy. And something that I’m really going to take away from this is just a reinvigorated love for the ensemble because I think that for a lot of things that you do as an actor in South Africa, there are limited budgets, so, usually, you’re in a one-woman show, or a two-hander, or there are three people in the production and you have to create this huge thing with three bodies. And having 9 people in a cast is an enormous thing, actually! And having so many people around you, and finding that movement and that breathing together and that rhythm that we have found, I think, is special for me.
Ben (Antony): There’s such joy in playing, just playing ... I think the one thing we want to communicate to these students is that you can be very playful in how you approach Shakespeare and that’s what I am going to take from this process. I think another favourite part has been learning (I should probably be saying this sentence in iambic pentameter) the i-am-bic pen-ta-me-ter, because you start to realise that how universal language is when you’re learning iambic pentameter and you’re speaking to your mother in Tswana, and you say, “Wait a minute! This applies here as well!” It really does! Say a sentence in Zulu and you’ll realise the iambic pentameter fits there as well. And you’ll think, “Oh, the thing is, we’ve all learnt to communicate in different expressions of language, but language is a universal system.” So that’s what I am going to take away from this … just how I have been reintroduced to language.
... you start to realise that how universal language is when you’re learning iambic pentameter and you’re speaking to your mother in Tswana, and you say, “Wait a minute! This applies here as well!”
Sanelisiwe (Cleopatra): I am actually not in my favourite part of the production. It’s a party; I can’t get into the club! It’s because they’re playing, and they play it so well and are enjoying it so much. It’s great to watch people who are really enjoying what they are doing. Funnily enough, I don’t know yet what I am taking from this production. I think I’m going to find out once the audiences start reacting, and I am excited to find out how they perceive it and, then, I think I will find out what I am taking from Antony and Cleopatra.
My favourite part is not in the play … it’s the people.
It tours until May 2018 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 and Agrippa
Neo Sibiya as Eros and Lepidus
Kevin Koopman as Alexas, Varrius, Scarus, and Diomedes
Ticket prices are R100 per learner
For enquiries and bookings, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org