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Tony, Meet Cleo

(Quadrant, November 2001)

Picture this if you can: a great captain of the ancient world awakes from an intoxicating night in the arms of Cleopatra—an Egyptian “dish for the gods”, a “lass unparallelled”—and finds himself face to face with Glenda Jackson. This isn’t mere speculation: it was an event observed by bemused playgoers and wondering critics at the time. There have even been British Cleopatras whose hauteur sounds only a starched syllable away from Lady Bracknell. Long on royal command, and short on allure, they illustrate the challenges which men playing Antony have faced on the London stage.

Nothing like this faced William Zappa in Sydney recently. What he saw before him was the attractive and youthful Paula Arundell. Tawny-fronted and bold as brass, Arundell brought plenty of noise and energy to Cleopatra as Queen of Tarts, yet also managed to wring a tear or two from the audience by the marble stillness of her death scene, asp to breast. Despite the famous reference to her supposedly infinite variety, Cleopatra as we actually see and hear her on the stage is more a wrangling, mocking tease than anything else, so there’s little call for royal dignity, andMiss Arundell was more than able to fulfil the promise of the opening lines:

Look, where they come!
Take but good note, and you shall see in him
The triple pillar of the world transformed
Into a strumpet’s fool.

Which brings us to Antony. As the triple pillar of the world Mr William Zappa did what he could in the peculiar circumstances dictated by his clothes. Described by Cleopatra as “the demi-Atlas of this earth” Antony first appears wearing a nice little sleeveless number in pink satin, the hem cut short in front but with a train behind, a sort of boudoirised wedding gown. It may well be that this is what Romans of distinction wore in their more playful moments. I don’t know. It looked encumbering.

Quite early in Act I Octavius Caesar looks down his nose contemptuously and tells us that Antony in Alexandria “is no: more man-like than Cleopatra; nor the queen of Ptolemy more womanly than he”, and presumably this was the costumier’s cue. It’s true that Mark Antony seems to have liked dressing up (he once appeared as Bacchus at an event in Ephesus), and the program note also informs us that according to one report he “indulged in masquerades dressed as a woman”.

Perhaps he did. But anecdotes culled from 2000-year old commentaries are of no real interest. What properly concerns us is what Shakespeare wrote—the opening scene which introduces Antony to the audience as it came from the playwright’s pen. If Shakespeare had wanted Antony to be cross-dressing as a woman in a pink leftover from the Mardi Gras in Act I, Scene I, we must  assume he would have said so. But all he says is that Scene I is “a room in Cleopatra’s palace”.

After this we waited hopefully for a more soldierly presence to appear. This is a play with “a happy valiancy” about it and lots of battles and battle talk. But in John Bell’s modern dress version Antony mostly wore the casual attire of a man fetching milk from the corner deli, while the more fierce fighting men in the cast wore hoodlum gear like small-time mafiosi or Harley-Davidson thugs. These were intended to contrast as grossly as possible with the representatives of imperial power in Italy, the austere Octavius and his lofty Roman set wearing the formal evening dress of high rollers playing baccarat at Monte Carlo in the 1930s, white scarves falling elegantly from their necks.

What is all this supposed to mean? Bell’s metaphor for his new adaptation of the play is the world of the casino: hence the gambling theme. When Antony cries “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch of the rang’d empire fall!” Bell is thinking of financial empires and the gambling losses of what used to be called tycoons; and when one of Shakespeare’s Romans circa 35 BC refers to the fortunes of war, or playing with fate, or chancing one’s destiny, this for some reason reminds Bell of Las Vegas and gaming houses and roulette.

He imposes this interpretation on the play most audaciously in the Battle of Actium. Like other military actions in Antony and Cleopatra it was originally invisible: according to Shakespeare’s stage advice “the noise of a sea-fight” is heard off-stage. It is of course at Actium (in Greece) where a naval showdown between Octavius Caesar and the combined fleets of Antony and Cleopatra takes place, the outcome being the key reversal in the play. When Cleopatra turns tail and flees with all her ships followed by Antony, the day is Caesar’s and the triumph Rome’s.

Bell brings Shakespeare’s unseen offstage battle onstage, inserting it into the play as a creative invention of his own. He choreographs it as a visible and highly obtrusive card game between rival teams of gamblers, silently mimed, and when the knaves and kings and queens have been played, and the final ace is shown, Cleopatra strides from the casino in disarray. Back in Alexandria outbursts of tears and rage suggest the end is nigh; before long Antony falls awkwardly on his sword; and Cleopatra prepares for her own departure with unexpected dignity: “Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have immortal longings in me.”

As already noted Ms Arundell very capably managed the snakes. Her Egyptian death scene had a rare poignancy, intensified as it should be by the preceding light relief of an unstoppably talkative countryman who brings them hidden in a basket of figs, and finds this an appropriate rime to explain the care, handling, diet and habits of serpents, and she finds him hard to get rid of. It was tense and funny and the audience hung on every word, while the rustic was played by a professional comic whose timing was impeccable—yet this may not be the only reason it succeeded. As with other scenes where messengers arrive bearing bad news, and find themselves scolded or whipped, the mundane business of plainly dressed ordinary folk who are instantly recognisable, doing and saying recognisable things, worked far better than more pretentious scenes elsewhere.

At a public discussion of his ideas John Bell said that he had origin-ally thought of an adaptation of Antony and Cleopatra using the Gulf War. America was a modern Rome, he told us, while US hegemony parallelled the Roman imperium, and the Gulf War was a clear case of the West versus the East. Apparently he toyed with this idea and then discarded it. No doubt there was an appealing equivalence between the triumvirate of Octavius, Antony and Lepidus, and the three main Gulf War allies of the USA, Britain and France. I suppose by some painful stretch of the imagination Antony could have been played by Mitterrand (the Frenchman does seem to have been romantically inclined), but there would have been trouble finding a parallel for Cleopatra—even in a pink shift Saddam Hussein would hardly do. Anyway that idea was scrapped.

Then in a blinding flash he had a vision of the world as one big casino—perhaps during a visit to Las Vegas. In antiquity great military aristocrats gambled with the fate of nations. In the modern world great plutocrats gamble and win or lose huge fortunes in monumental gambling palaces. It’s really all the same thing when you come to think of it—or anyway that’s what John Bell thinks. And the unsavoury figures at the social foundations of the gambling world made it all the more appealing.

According to Bell, legitimate political power and military and financial might are scarcely distinguishable from the world of thugs and enforcers and shakedown artists (they all trade in something called “violence”), and for this reason it is appropriate to portray political and military leaders from every time and place as little more than grandiose mafiosi.

Such is the parlour radicalism of thespian thought. Four whole pages of the program notes were given to excerpts from books and documents about the mafia as an international phenomenon, and the connection between globalisation and the evil empire of the USA was underlined in a passage from a book by Frank Viviano:

In the empire of crime, the US mafia is just a supporting actor. But the deeper causes have to do with business acumen, pure and simple: the European, Latin American, and Asian crime machines have been far quicker to recognise—and exploit—the possibilities of the global economy. Like the chief executives of many US corporations, America’s godfathers have been absorbed in domestic business, leaving the vastly larger profits of multinational commerce to more imaginative entrepreneurs overseas.

It all seems a long way from Shakespeare. And a long way from Greece and Rome. And very confusing. Not only was Mr Bell blinded by a bright idea about casinos, he seems to have mixed this up with a lot of other undigested political notions too, before trying to impose them on both the luckless Bard and his even more luckless Australian audiences.

What is the rationale for doing the classics in modern dress? It is to help bridge the gap between other times and other forms of language and our own. In Shakespeare’s case there are strange words, strange meanings for familiar words, strange constructions compelled by the verse, all of which are hard for the untrained ear to catch.

But the last thing you need is further confusion, and my simple point is this. If you start with inherent difficulties of language, and then add further obstacles by way of weird clothing, or incomprehensible persons and motives which make no sense, instead of helping your audience you leave them totally mystified. They are invited to solve an intellectual puzzle along the following lines. In any given scene, A doesn’t really mean A, it means B; though B may also mean C. So that a series of translation procedures must be undergone. Pompey is not a Roman general but a mafia boss; and as a mafia boss he is reduced to something much more amoral, a secondary step which often makes Shakespeare’s dialogue, as embodied in his characters, implausible or absurd. This is not a moral or even an aesthetic issue (though it certainly has aesthetic consequences). It is a practical theatrical matter applying to the smallest things.

Take the words of the Roman general Enobarbus as he’s about to describe the marvel of Cleopatra’s barge, when he says to the awaiting Maecenas and Agrippa “I will tell you” about it. Hearing those four words the natural thing is to listen silently to a wise and experienced soldier and let him tell his tale. This trust comes naturally when the internal and external coherence of the Shakespearean character (speech and appearance) are visibly presented together on the stage. But who would trust a bleached blond coke-sniffing brute in bovver boots who seems a complete stranger to articulate thought? I wouldn’t trust him to tell me the time; why should I trust him with one of the most treasured passages in English literature?

It would be ridiculous to be doctrinaire. There have been countless experiments with Shakespearean dress and location and there will continue to be. Some of them have been very successful—Branagh’s setting of Hamlet at Blenheim Palace was an example. Though one might quarrel with details, overall it struck me as enthralling for most of its four hours on the screen. Again, when the literary matter has an interior and reflective poetic quality other considerations apply: in Hamlet’s soliloquies almost any strong visual element can be distracting, and it might even be argued that they are best appreciated as tape recordings, or radio drama, or with the stage in nearly complete darkness.

But where a clear stage identity is essential to the meaning of the verse, the sense and credibility of Shakespeare are fatally undermined by grossly eccentric conceptions and dress. They drive a disastrous wedge between the figures we see on stage and the speeches Shakespeare gives his characters. If the result is a visible contradiction between wilful and arbitrary appearance (for example, as mafiosi or gamblers), and the entirely recognisable figures clearly implied by Shakespeare’s dialogue (a general or a queen), why should we care about Antony or Cleopatra or anyone else?

After Bell’s Battle of the Casino the losers at the card game take flight. Psychologically and morally, how is this comparable with losing a battle at sea? When Scarus declares, “I never saw an action of such shame; experience, manhood, honour; ne’er before did violate so itself,” puzzled audiences might reasonably think he protests too much. It all sounds over the top, since manhood and honour and shame have little to do with those who inhabit gambling dens. When the defeated Antony cries, “Hark! the land bids me tread no more upon’t; it is ashamed to bear me” he is described as being “unqualified by very shame” and goes on to say of himself “I have offended reputation, a most unnoble swerving”. How are we to equate these visions of moral apocalypse with losing one’s chips?

Bell’s radical chic tends to reduce all male and soldierly virtues to the same level of moral squalor. This makes a mockery of Shakespeare at every turn. The ethical universe of the pirate Menas who allies himself with Pompey’s forces is not the same as Pompey’s, and the playwright is at some pains to make this clear (Act II, scene vii). When Menas suggests cutting the throats of the triumvirs who are in Pompey’s grasp aboard his galley, the general replies:

Ah, this thou shouldst have done,
And not spoke on’t! In me ’tis villainy;
In thee’t had been good service. Thou must know
‘Tis not my profit that does lead mine honour;
Mine honour, it.

It is clear that Pompey finds Menas’ scheme not unappealing. The murder of Octavius, Lepidus and Antony would greatly simplify his plans. But Roman honour forbids it: “in me ’tis villainy”. If however two actors, reduced to the same amoral identity and similarly dressed in swashbuckling leather and silver gear connivingly have this same exchange, the moral point of the scene is lost, its dramatic effect cancelled, and its original meaning destroyed. If both men are portrayed as indiscriminately villainous, Pompey’s objection makes him seem merely a hypocrite and coward.

Scholars may argue whether Antony and Cleopatra is truly a tragedy or not, but one thing is clear: if you play it as a kind of socio-political burlesque the chance of achieving tragic effects goes out the window. Trivialisation has an inevitable price. In order to care about the death of Antony we have to take the character seriously. Yet right from the very first scene Bell makes this impossible. In Shakespeare the death of Enobarbus is not without pathos. But who could care about the freaky oaf with the bleached blond hair Bell puts before us? We want him off—and the sooner the better. By contrast the female roles are treated more respectfully throughout. The reward for Paula Arundell being that despite her youth and limited emotional range, the house is properly still and attentive when Cleopatra dies.

As for the overarching notion that Rome = the USA = power and violence = the mafia = the world as a casino … what can one say? The Roman empire left us a heritage of law, literature, architecture and engineering which has endured 2000 years. If the mafia sank beneath the waves tomorrow it would leave nothing—nothing that is except tales of brutality and terror. As Stravinsky said in another context, “of unresisting imbecility no criticism is possible”. Bell’s radical chic is imbecility on stilts.

The Bell Shakespeare Company makes much of its educational endeavours and is proud of the theatre workshops it provides in schools. But if you want to keep Shakespeare alive and enjoyable for modern audiences, then the Saturday matinee shouldn’t be interrupted with questions like these:

Jane: Which is Mark Antony, Daddy? The one on the left or the one on the right?

Dad: The one in the pink dress.


Jimmy: Who is the man in the middle holding a briefcase like yours?

Dad: That is a Roman general named Lepidus.

Jimmy: Did Roman generals carry briefcases?

Dad: Not usually.

Jimmy: Then why is Lepidus carrying one?

Dad: Because the director wants us to think that Lepidus is a poor, weak, fussy, ineffective fellow, who is not really up to it, and that if he is portrayed as a kind of obsequious insurance salesman, a pathetic representative of the business world which supports Mr Bell’s theatre but which Mr Bell affects to despise, and which he caricatures in his productions, then we will somehow get the point.

The business world is much involved in the Bell Shakespeare Company’s activities. The Bell Magazine, a newsletter, “sincerely thanks” Volvo, Fujitsu, Orange, AGL, SalomonSmithBarney, Ericsson, the NAB, Austar Communications, Wesfarmers Arts, Australia Post, BHP, Sydney Water, and Edison Mission Energy, along with a number of lesser sponsors. It is hard to know what to make of the two-faced attitude toward the businesses of the “corporate sector” revealed in this publication, sincerely thanked on one page and ridiculed on another (presumably they are seen as the “useful idiots” of yesteryear), but as a guide to the thinking of the Bell Shakespeare Company’s present director the magazine is invaluable. Some anonymous copy on page two for Antony and Cleopatra reads as follows:

The excesses of the high and mighty drip blood on underlings. A corporate collapse in the new millennium? A besotted and hedonistic leader in the Roman Empire? Antony and Cleopatra are willing to gamble everything in a world that’s willing to take them for everything. As gangsters struggle for underworld power and high rollers risk the lot in a glamorous world where time is lost, Shakespeare’s brilliant gritty, human story of love and betrayal plays out to its devastating conclusion … Director John Bell’s production of Shakespeare’s great adult love story is set in a decadent and violent high-stake world where spirituality is lost to sexual jealousy, hero worship and deception.

The treatment of John Bell himself in the Bell Magazine is comically sycophantic. Hardly a page is without a glowing tribute, and the elision of his name with that of Shakespeare’s (bellshakespeare) in both the company’s email address and its website indicates an ominous confusion. Other grandiose associations are enthusiastically seized on too. One page of the magazine announces that “Bell hangs out with Picasso”, this introducing the topic of the 2001 Archibald Prize. We are told that Nicholas Harding’s “portrait of Bell—or King Lear as played by John Bell—now hangs alongside works by Pablo Picasso and Lucian Freud, after being sold for $20,000 through art dealer Rex Irwin to a major collector from Singapore”. Bell is quoted as saying of Harding’s portrait, “I’m not sure how much of me is there. But I think he’s caught the character I was playing very well.” To which the copywriter has ingratiatingly added, “Every inch a king, no doubt.”

It might be argued that only those who have had to raise the money to keep Shakespeare on the boards in a commercial environment can fairly judge the strategy of the Bell Shakespeare Company today. No doubt Bell sees himself as a player in “a decadent and violent high-stake world”, given to rock videos and the crassest of movies for entertainment, who must do whatever it takes to fight his corner. For his work and energy over many years we must all be grateful.

But in the eyes of this occasional member of the audience there are alarming symptoms of his company’s intellectual decadence and decline. Anyone interested in Shakespeare might now be advised to avoid bellshakespeare and look to smaller groups, less narcissistic, pretentious, and perverse, for productions genuinely honouring our greatest poet.

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