Stage history

Performance history expert Rebecca Brown guides us through the stage history of Antony and Cleopatra from the time Shakespeare wrote it to the present day.


The Lord Chamberlain's records of 1669 tell us that Antony and Cleopatra was 'formerly acted at the Blackfriars'. This was the hall used by Shakespeare and his fellow King's Men for indoor performances in the seventeenth century. It was smaller and more intimate than the outdoor playhouses and used indoor lighting for audience and stage alike. It is most likely that the play was also performed in the Globe playhouse, in daylight on the simple thrust stage. The lack of scenery was a help rather than a hindrance in keeping the focus on the players and the language, and allowing the fast-paced, fluid action necessary to the success of the play.

Music (both indolent, for Cleopatra's leisured scenes, and martial, for alarums and excursions), flowing robes and cloaks (to suggest a classical style of costume), and a few props were all else that was required. The balcony above the rear of the stage supplied Cleopatra's monument to which the women haul up the dying Antony. The area underneath the stage concealed the musicians playing the mysterious music of the 'hautboyes' (an early version of the melancholy oboe) to mark the departure of Hercules from his protégé, Antony. Shakespeare wrote his plays with the strengths and talents of his fellow players in mind and he was clearly fortunate in having a gifted boy in the company to whom he could entrust the role of Cleopatra, a heroine who survives the hero by a whole act.

John Dryden's adaptation, All For Love or The World Well Lost, took the place of Shakespeare's original on the London stage in 1678 and enjoyed much success for many years, with actors such as Thomas Betterton and Elizabeth Barry in the leading roles. Dryden 'corrected' Shakespeare's wanton disregard of the classically-approved unities of time, action and place, restricting the action to Alexandria on the final day of the lovers' lives. The number of named roles is reduced from 34 to 10. Dryden skilfully catered to the taste and sensibility of his audience, replacing Shakespeare's demandingly complex narrative and characterisation with a simplified focus on the conflict between love and honour.

A more recognisably Shakespearean Antony and Cleopatra was presented by David Garrick at Drury Lane in 1759. It was a much simplified and shortened version, with the loss of a fair number of minor characters as well as all jokes and innuendo of a bawdy nature. The removal of some scenes of political discussion and military combat heightened the emphasis on the love story and on the role of Cleopatra in particular. Dryden's version was clearly more successful in satisfying contemporary taste and Garrick's production soon closed.

Increasingly in the nineteenth century, the play was viewed as a vehicle for splendid spectacle and pageantry. Ever more of the text was cut in order to allow time for the complicated scene changes, conjuring up beautiful gardens, sumptuous palaces, and, in William Charles Macready's production at Drury Lane in 1833, 'the promontory of Actium, with views of the fleets of Caesar and Antony'. In John Philip Kemble's production, at Covent Garden in 1813, the battle of Actium was played out, complete with galleys and a funeral oration, spoken by Dolabella, at the close of the production, was followed by a grand funeral procession, with a choir of 45 gathered around the tomb.

In 1849 at Sadlers Wells, Samuel Phelps devised an impressive procession to accompany Antony as he returned in triumph to Alexandria, complete with numerous officers, ranked in fours, followed by 21 troops, three abreast. His Cleopatra entered with a two sets of guards, one Egyptian and one Amazonian. Spectacle reached its zenith (or nadir, depending on your point of view) in Chatterton's production at Drury Lane in 1873, in which Shakespeare's long play was reduced to no more than 12 scenes. These scenes, of course, still took a long time to be enacted since there was so much on display for the audience's pleasure. Chatterton produced realistic galleys for the battle of Actium, a ballet, 30 choirboys and an Amazonian procession to mark the marriage of Antony and Octavia, plus a full-blown representation of Cleopatra's first meeting with Antony on her barge on the river Cydnus.

Isabel Glyn, Samuel Phelps' Cleopatra in 1849, was praised for her grace, dignity and classical style. One reviewer described her 'poses' as 'severely statuesque' and her death was 'sublime'. The celebrated beauty, Lillie Langtry, played the role in 1890 at the Princess's Theatre but was rather overwhelmed by the production. Constance Collier, playing opposite Herbert Beerbohm Tree in his production at His Majesty's Theatre in 1906, was a strong enough actor to assert herself against the lavish spectacle and won praise for her fierce energy.

It was not until 1922 that something akin to the speed and fluency of its original staging were restored to the play. Robert Atkins' production of that year at the Old Vic was much influenced by the work of William Poel and Harley Granville-Barker. They sought to return to the simplicity of staging for which Shakespeare's plays were first written. For them, the kaleidoscopic short scenes of Antony and Cleopatra, in which the action flits from one far-flung corner of the world to the next, were not an excuse for a picturesque tour of the ancient world's beauty spots but an indication that the dramatist is not concerned with specifically detailed locations.

The play was popular on stage throughout the 1920s and 1930s. One notable production from this time was that of Harcourt Williams at the Old Vic in 1930, in which John Gielgud played Antony, Dorothy Green Cleopatra and Ralph Richardson Enobarbus. The inspiration for the costumes came from the paintings of Veronese and Tiepolo, rather than the customary copying of the ancient world.

In 1946 Godfrey Tearle and Edith Evans took the title roles at the Piccadilly Theatre, directed by Glen Byam Shaw. The design team Motley devised a versatile, permanent set which allowed the necessary swift pace to be maintained. Five years later, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh took the leads in a successful production at the St. James's Theatre, cross-casting the play with Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra. A revolving stage allowed for the many different locations, proving particularly useful for the change between the exterior and the interior of the Monument. Olivier's bravura versatility was a gift for the role of Antony: he was praised for his wit, his passion and the 'infinitely tragic' effect of his dying moments. Leigh's beauty, intelligence and technique won her praise although some reviewers thought her lacking in the gypsy fire required by the role.

Vanessa Redgrave brought plenty of uninhibited passion and bad temper to the role in Tony Richardson's modern dress production at the Bankside Globe Playhouse in 1973. She was to play Cleopatra again, 13 years later, for Theatr Clwyd. Her Antony in 1973, played by Julian Glover, was handsome, narcissistic and easily manipulated into defeat by the youthful Caesar of David Schofield. Toby Robertson, at the Prospect Theatre Company in 1977, took a more traditional approach, with Dorothy Tutin and Alec McCowen taking the lead roles. This production played in repertoire with Dryden's All For Love, which was costumed in Restoration style, while Shakespeare's play was dressed in Renaissance finery.

In recent decades, the play has continued to challenge the theatrical imagination. Judi Dench and Anthony Hopkins led Peter Hall's highly praised production at the National Theatre in 1987. This was another production which evoked the classical world through the pictorial style of the artists of the Italian Renaisance. Barry Rutter's Northern Broadsides production at the Viaduct in Halifax, in 1995, updated the play and set in the north of England, for example replacing Pompey's galley with a pub. Michael Bogdanov likewise chose a modern setting at the Hackney Empire in 1998. Most fascinating of all, Mark Rylance played Cleopatra, to great effect, in an all-male production at Shakespeare's Globe in 1999.

For more on RSC stagings of Antony and Cleopatra, see Productions 1953 - 2006 »

Antony and Cleopatra on film

Charlton Heston directed himself and Hildegard Neil as the leads in a film version of the play in 1972. Trevor Nunn's stage production for the RSC was recorded for television in 1974. In 1981, Jonathan Miller directed Jane Lapotaire and Colin Blakely in the play for the BBC series of Shakespeare plays. As in other productions of the play, the inspiration for set and costume of this production came from the paintings of Veronese and Tiepolo.


Written by Rebecca Brown © RSC

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