Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, presented by the Shakespeare Theatre Company at Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, D.C., 27 April – 6 July 2008.

M. G. Aune
California University of Pennsylvania

M. G. Aune. "Review of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, presented by the Shakespeare Theatre Company at Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, D.C.". Early Modern Literary Studies 14.2/Special Issue 17 (September, 2008) 16.1-21 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/14-2/revaune.html>.

    Julius Caesar. Director: David Muse. Set Designer: James Noone, Costume Designer: Jennifer Moeller, Lighting Designer: Mark McCoullough. With Dan Kremer (Julius Caesar), Kim Martin-Cotton (Calphurnia), Aubrey K. Deeker (Octavius), Kurt Rhoads, who replaced an injured Andrew Long (Mark Antony), Ted van Griethuysen (Lepidus), Tom Hammond (Brutus), Scott Parkinson (Caius Cassius), Kryztov Lindquist (Soothsayer), and Nancy Rodriguez (Portia), and Craig Wallace (Caius Ligarius).

    Antony and Cleopatra. Director: Michael Kahn. Set Designer: James Noone, Costume Designer: Jennifer Moeller, Lighting Designer: Mark McCoullough. With Andrew Long (Mark Antony), Aubrey K. Deeker (Octavius), and Ted van Griethuysen (Lepidus), Dan Kremer (Enobarbus), Tom Hammond (Dolabella), Tyrone Mitchell Henderson (Thidias), Craig Wallace (Pompey), Suzanne Bertish (Cleopatra), Nancy Rodriguez (Iras), Kim Martin-Cotton (Charmian), Kryztov Lindquist (Soothsayer).

  1. The Shakespeare Theatre Company, Washington D.C.’s premier classical repertory theater, revealed its much-anticipated new convertible performance space in their 2007-2008 season. While the debut Shakespeare plays performed in repertory, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, were innovative and the characters well-developed, the stage gadgetry tended to overwhelm the productions.

  2. The Shakespeare Theatre Company was founded in 1985 to provide classical repertory theater to the capital city. The majority of each season’s productions are Shakespearean, perhaps most famously the 1997 “photonegative” Othello that starred Patrick Stewart as a white Moor among black Venetians. The company has grown consistently, beginning with a four-play season, adding a fifth, free outdoor play in 1991, expanding to six plays six years later and most recently mounting a nine-play season. A series of new venues has aided this development: the company began in the small 250-seat theater in the Folger Shakespeare Library, and in 1992 moved to the larger (451 seat) Landsburgh Theater. In the autumn of 2007, it opened Sidney Harman Hall, a new, $89 million, 775-seat auditorium.

  3. Harman Hall, named for patron Sidney Harman, who provided nearly a quarter of the construction money, is a technological marvel. The stage can be converted into proscenium, thrust, end stage or hybrid configurations in a matter of hours. The front rows of the seating are mobile and can be rotated perpendicular to the rest of the house to create a thrust stage or lowered into the floor to increase the stage size. The proscenium can be taken apart and lifted into the flies. The auditorium walls are made of louvered panels of a dark wood, behind which are curtains that can be opened or closed to alter the space’s acoustics. The seats are covered in gray fabric and have wooden backs matching the walls. This color scheme provides the auditorium with its warmth and intimacy, while the high ceiling and relatively distant stage keep the seats from feeling claustrophobic. The sight lines are good from nearly every point, though the last eight rows of the orchestra and much of the balcony are quite far from the stage.

  4. Somewhat surprisingly, the Shakespeare Theatre Company waited until the seventh and eighth productions of the season to stage Shakespeare plays in the new space: the inaugural productions for Harman Hall were Marlowe’s Edward II and a conflation of his two Tamburlaine plays. The choices for the first two Shakespeare plays were also somewhat unconventional. Rather than produce a reliable comedy and one of the big tragedies, the company chose Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra in what it called a “Roman Repertory”.

  5. In his online director’s notes for Antony and Cleopatra, director Michael Kahn does not address why he chose these two plays, but he does state that he and Julius Caesar director David Muse wanted to “see which characters function similarly in both plays in relation to the power structure or their profession.” Antony and Cleopatra was the opening production – even though Julius Caesar precedes it historically and was also written first - but after the first night, one could see them in historical sequence. The plays ran on alternating nights during the week and on the weekend, and could be seen one after another at matinee and evening shows.

  6. The common characters, Mark Antony, the Soothsayer, Octavius, and Lepidus were all played by the same actors. The repertory cast also created doublings of Julius Caesar/Enobarbus, Brutus/Dolabella, Calphurnia/Charmian, Portia/Iras and Caius Ligarius/Pompey. The costumes and props were also shared by both productions, so that, in keeping with the directors’ use of period settings, togas and robes dominated the productions. The senators’ robes were long and flowing white cloth with single broad taupe stripes along the edges. Caesar’s was similar, although the stripe was a deep red that recalled his triumphal robe in the first scene and the soldiers’ armor, and that also foreshadowed the blood that would stain it. Cleopatra and her attendants’ eastern origins were expressed via their silk robes in rich reds and browns and deep décolletages. Antony’s soldiers, as they did in Julius Caesar, wore the red-brown armor over white robes, while gray robes and black armor distinguished Octavius and his men.

  7. The two productions used the same end stage configuration. A large pair of doors occupied upstage center and were flanked by steep staircases. To the left and right of the staircases were two more pairs of smaller doors. The staircases led up to a second level that featured platforms over each of the three doorways. The stairs were mobile and during several scenes in Julius Caesar they were collapsed to create a solid wall between the pairs of doors, isolating the lower level of the stage from the upper. The stage floor, stairs, and doors were light colored wood while the walls and stair risers were constructed of dark latticed metal. Though attractive, the metal and wood materials harmonized with the auditorium, rather than the stage action, preventing the audience from becoming fully absorbed in the plays’ settings. The second level was quite high, at least fifteen feet and the stairs were steep enough to serve as tiered benches in the senate scene. The platforms over the doors were positioned for characters to make speeches or to prevent actions occurring above the stage floor from disturbing events below. The trap in the middle of stage was almost too large to be called a trap and easily accommodated Caesar, three attendants, and enough furniture for his argument with Calphurnia in 2.2. The architecture of the stage, the doors, platforms, and stairs evoked Rome and Egypt much more than the materials. The height of the second level and the breadth of the stage provided a huge space that easily accommodated twenty-five actors but tended to dwarf groups of three or four.

  8. Julius Caesar opened with the Soothsayer and his ashes and blood in the spotlight, emphasizing the inevitability of Caesar’s death, but also initiating the first of many links with Antony and Cleopatra. The blood would carry through the plays, appearing on the runners’ faces in 1.2, Caesar’s body, the Senate floor, the conspirators’ swords and in Antony and Cleopatra on Thidias’ robes and the stage floor in 3.13, Cleopatra’s breast, and would be recalled by the red spotlight that illuminated Caesar’s ghost and at times, Cleopatra.

  9. It has often been observed that while the play is titled Julius Caesar, its dominant characters are Mark Antony and Brutus, who are played off against each other as the cynical manipulator and the idealistic nobleman. Kurt Rhoads’ Antony was certainly an opportunist, but his cynicism and cunning were somewhat attenuated, perhaps by the thought that he would have his own play the next night. For example, when Caesar noted, “See, Antony, that revels long a-nights, / Is notwithstanding up,” (2.2.117-18) he was speaking about a distinctly hung-over Antony, shuffling along still holding the laurel crown he had won the day before. This condition further explained his disorientation and flight when the conspirators struck.

  10. The interval occurred after the murder, allowing Caesar’s body to lie on stage while everyone else exited. Circled in a red spotlight, he stood up and in a moment foreshadowing his later, ghostly form, stalked off stage in the first of four posthumous appearances. The play resumed with Brutus and the conspirators entering on the upper level and occupying the platform above the center doors. The crowd, at least twenty-five strong, gathered around the stairs, the lower level, and on the platforms above the two side doorways. The blocking here used the broad stage and multiple levels effectively, allowing the conspirators to speak authoritatively and be seen, but also separating them from the mass of Romans. Antony took advantage of this segregation by stepping out of the crowd on the lower level and slowly climbing the stage to take his place on the center platform. A spotlight isolated the Plebeians when they commented, preventing the audience from losing track of who was speaking. After crossing the space between the public and the conspirators, Antony began his speech, but omitted his famous opening line. Without “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” his speech felt less manipulative and pandering, but did not impair his point. As his speech progressed he slowly descended the stairs, cleverly rejoining the throng and separating and perhaps protecting himself from the conspirators.

  11. Brutus and his struggle to be the honorable man of Antony’s estimation dominated the rest of the performance. He remained firmly in control during his argument with Cassius in 4.3, and even during the intrusion of the scolding poet. The final face-to-face meeting of Antony and Brutus affirmed their characterizations. Smug Antony, after wrangling with Octavius, distractedly munched on an apple as he baited Brutus. Brutus would not rise and declared his rebuke to Octavius with a perfectly straight delivery: “O, if thou wert the noblest of thy strain, / Young man, thou couldst not die more honorable” (5.1.59-60).

  12. Brutus’ composure was finally shaken by the appearance of the bloody Caesar’s ghost, but he still managed to be gentle with the dozing Lucius. Caesar’s ghost materialized twice more, assisting Pindarus in killing Cassius, and Brutus in his suicide. This reappearance of Caesar reminded the audience that the play was his rather than Brutus or Antony’s. But it also anchored the play in the past. Through his presence at Cassius and Brutus’ deaths, Caesar returned from the dead to destroy, symbolically, the conspirators’ hopes that Rome would continue to be a Republic.

  13. Antony and Cleopatra varied the stage configuration only by having the three sets of doors constantly open, creating a sense of greater space and access. Egypt was depicted as sensuous and seductive, with flute music and warm colors. Rome was cold and martial with black banners hanging above the second level and percussive music. When the play began, the stage was littered with pillows and burning censers. Antony and Cleopatra, who was obviously in control, flirted and laughed around the stage. Cleopatra’s long flowing silk robes, rich dark hair, and gold jewelry were each just a notch more elaborate than her attendants’ costumes. Suzanne Bertish played Cleopatra as a knowing coquette, always aware of the effect of her words and gestures. Bertish was cognizant of the audience as well, playing to them occasionally eliciting laughter with and sometimes at her. The Antony of Julius Caesar had aged, but was smitten with Cleopatra and had no troubling keeping up with her games.

  14. Antony attempted to keep Rome at arm’s length by dismissing the messenger, but the entrance in the next scene of Kremer as Enobarbus and Lindquist as the Soothsayer, both familiar from Julius Caesar, reminded the audience that the empire could not be forgotten. The effect was heightened by Charmian and Iras’ lack of serious engagement with the Soothsayer’s pronouncements. Their near dismissal of his dark predictions in the presence of Enobarbus (the “ghost” of Julius Caesar, the last person to ignore the Soothsayer) was almost overdetermined. The lively pace of the play, however, prevented such moments from being overly distracting.

  15. The arrogant, hard-drinking Antony looked at home in decadent Egypt. This aspect of his character was exploited to its greatest extent in the banquet scene (2.7). Antony’s control as he, Pompey, Lepidus, and the others became more and more intoxicated demonstrated that he was accustomed to holding his drink. Lepidus the aged Roman resident, in contrast, was quickly made a drunken fool, climaxing when his pteruges dropped around his ankles. Octavius, in contrast, attempted to avoid indulging and watched the chaos from the perimeter. The scene was the centerpiece of the play, sprawling over the great space of the stage and keeping the audience roaring with laughter.

  16. If the ghost of Julius Caesar continued to haunt his play after his death, other ghosts from the earlier play haunted Antony and Cleopatra. Enobarbus’ betrayal of Antony seemed especially cruel with Antony’s support for Caesar fresh in memory. The doubling of Portia/Iras and Calphurnia/Charmian punctuated the reliability, support, and impotence of the female characters. And appropriately enough, the honorable Brutus reappeared as Dolabella, desperately and futilely trying to see that Cleopatra was treated with respect and dignity.

  17. Antony and Cleopatra concluded with Octavius triumphant. As he delivered his last speech, great black banners displaying his face in stark white unfurled above the stage. The banners recalled those from the previous night. Featuring Julius Caesar’s face, they were prominently displayed at the beginning of the performance but pulled down by the end of the first scene. The message was somewhat muted, but impossible to miss. History repeats itself and no ruler is so powerful that he or she cannot be brought down.

  18. The goal of the two directors in linking the plays in performance was to see what would be revealed about the characters, and the result was two productions focused heavily on character. They tended to become uniform across both plays, creating a distinct narrative relationship between the two. Mark Antony’s party-boy quality in his own play spread back into Julius Caesar, making him seem somewhat more lucky than clever. Brutus’ nobility was transported forward via the doubling with Dolabella. But that nobility, in both cases was wasted. Caesar became almost a nostalgic symbol of the past, when Rome was ruled by a tyrant, but at least not at the mercy of neglectfully cruel men like Antony or coldly cruel men like Octavius.

  19. The results of the Roman Repertory were thoughtful, though not very surprising. Seeing a skilled company at work was enjoyable and the reception was much more positive than it was for the Marlowe plays earlier in the season. Two final issues remain problematic. The first is context. Staging two explicitly political plays during a presidential election year in the nation’s capital would seem like an ideal opportunity to explore questions of politics and leadership. The short online note “About the Play: Julius Caesar” notes that it is often produced at times of “political turmoil” including the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, the second election of Lincoln, and the rise of Mussolini. But while both directors in their notes mention the politics of the plays and those of Washington, neither production seemed to engage current politics directly. The period setting, amazing stage, and emphasis on character all tend to de-emphasize the political and focus on the personal. This decision was not necessarily fatal to either play, but in Washington DC, in an election year, it seems like a missed opportunity.

  20. The second issue concerns the new hall itself. While the prominence of character was both a strength and an underdeveloped consideration, the use of the new stage and its machinery was more of a distraction than a revelation. Both Muse and Khan and their lighting designer, Mark McCullough, managed to use the large space of the stage without becoming overwhelmed, the mobile walls, spacious lift, and second level were objects of interest unto themselves and not enhancements to the performances. The collapse of the staircases into walls in Julius Caesar was almost mesmerizing. Even though it occurred between scenes, it remained fascinating as one wondered what other marvels the stage possessed. The lift was similarly impressive and created anticipation for its next use. The most disappointing use of the new stage, however, was at the end of Antony and Cleopatra.

  21. Placing Cleopatra’s tomb on the second level was a sensible choice because it allowed the Egyptians to remain visible while isolated. But the decision to move Antony’s body up into it via a cargo net dropped from the flies arrested the momentum of the play. Too much time and energy was expended shuffling the body into the net, attaching the cables and the safety harness, lifting Antony up, and detaching all the cables. If the effect were to be some sort of divine elevation of Antony, the net and cables disrupted it. The final effect was, unfortunately, one of disappointment. The strong performances felt diminished by the avoidance of political subtext and overwhelmed by the unnecessary use of stage equipment.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2008-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).