Illusion and Ambivalence in Antony & Cleopatra

If there can be said to be one great theme running through Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies, it is this: the destruction of 'seeming,' with all its attendant illusions, and the triumphant re-entrenching, terrible or glorious, of reality.

In Twelfth Night and As You Like It, the male disguises adopted by the female characters are penetrated and done away with, and normative gender roles are reestablished, joyfully, with marriages. In Othello, the web of lies in which Iago has ensnared Othello is finally, forcibly cut away, too late to save anyone from the bloodbath of deception and revelation. In Romeo & Juliet, the lovers are found together in death, having lived, loved and died entirely in night and in secret, and 'a glooming peace' comes only with the stark and revelatory light of morning.

It is the characters who live to piece everything together afterward, to stitch, often painfully and laboriously, the fabric of reality together again, who are, in effect, the driving creative forces writing that reality for us. They are the ones to carve the play's lessons on the dark walls of our imaginings, the ones to shape what we've seen, and cast the final judgments. There is punishment for the wicked, if not always happiness for the good. There is redemption, and catharsis.

This is formula. This is our ritual and our rite. There is nothing so unsettling in the world as a lack of closure.

I've spent the better part of two years trying to explain to myself the unpopularity of this play, in the act of preparing to direct it. The odd, astringent taste it leaves in the mouth in spite of the hyperbolic beauty of its writing, and the power, earthy vitality and extraordinary complexity of its characters. And I think it can best be summed up as a violent and deliberate act of ambivalence on Shakespeare's part, one that was not well received in its day, and has known only brief surges of popularity in the days since. Antony & Cleopatra makes hungry where most it satisfies, leaving us with the stark, gnawing sensation of the unfinished.

Reality successfully overcomes the seductive and terrible power of illusion in the bleak Scottish Highlands, in rotten Denmark, in sweltering, war-torn Cyprus, in embattled Verona. But in the rich soil of old Nile, imagination takes root and swells beyond the power of cool Roman logic to decipher and diminish it. Antony and Cleopatra write themselves into greatness. And no matter how vulgar their actions, their abuses of servants and messengers, their continually expressed obsessions with the earth-bound pleasures of sex, food and wine, their infidelities, their betrayals, their ignoble acts, their instability and inadequacy as rulers, the patina of their greatness is strangely undiminished. Whether we see them as a great man and woman who were flawed rulers, or great rulers who were flawed human beings, we are forced by the sheer weight of the words to acknowledge their greatness.

They die as they lived, with an odd, ambiguous blend of black comedy and grand gesture, and Octavius' summation and closing, his stolid Roman conclusions, are brief, desultory, unsatisfying. The reality he represents is simply not as compelling as the glittering illusions with which Antony and Cleopatra have managed to surround themselves; indeed, Octavius himself does nothing to dispel them, buying into them in an odd final act of kindness while simultaneously encouraging Agrippa and the other survivors to "see high order in this great solemnity." 'Seeming' is in no wise destroyed; neither is 'high order' established. Octavius tries, and fails, to chart a middle course between them, leaving us with a sense of unresolved ambiguity that has trickled down through the centuries, fundamentally unanswered and unanswerable.

Little wonder the play is so seldom performed; we tend to dislike that which defies easy definition. If this play enjoys any underground popularity, it is with that rare fringe sect of true believers, the lovers of enigma who like to hunt for their answers. This is advanced Shakespeare, a piece that has teased, laughed us out of patience, laughed us into patience, and defied analysis for close to four hundred years. The Rudes' treatment isn't about resolving those mysteries; it's entirely about reveling in their continued existence, examining the work in an entirely new light, reworked and interleaved with three scenes from John Dryden's companion play, "All For Love."

With all its rampant, chaotic, deliciously uncontrolled and unresolved illusion, it became irresistable to set the play in a theatrical property room and give it a Brechtian spin. To let you see the actors as actors, the play as a play. To show you the edges, to immerse you in the illusions themselves while showing you exactly how we, as actors, create them, Penn and Teller style. To thin the dividing line between actors and audience. To engage the intellect rather than the emotions by giving you that one distancing level between you and the story. To deny catharsis. To highlight the vitality, the vulgarity, the linguistic violence and the genuinely exalted beauty of the work. The play is very like Cleopatra herself, half goddess, half guttersnipe, one foot in Heaven and the other in the Stews, frustrating, engaging, constantly shifting, recklessly passionate, endlessly fascinating.

If you come away from Antony & Cleopatra with nothing more than the sense that it was maddening and intriguing in equal parts, not sure whether you loved it or hated it, you will probably have come as close to 'getting it' as anyone ever will.

- Jaki Demarest, Director