Director Gregory Doran's intense production for the intimate setting of the Swan's thrust stage brought the passion and politics of this tragic love story up close to the audience.

Stephen Brimson-Lewis's elegant and uncluttered set design featured a relief-map of the ancient world set into the wide white brick wall at the back. The minimal set enabled the storytelling to dominate and allowed the scenes to flow smoothly into each other across the stage.

Patrick Stewart as Mark Antony and Harriet Walter as Cleopatra, surrounded by guards and maids.
Antony and Cleopatra (2006) Cleopatra (Harriet Walter) chases Antony (Patrick Stewart) with a whip. Photo by Pascal Molliere.

Patrick Stewart's Antony was a fuzzy-haired old soldier perfectly happy among his army comrades and full of resentment towards John Hopkin's simmering neurotic Octavius Caesar.

Harriet Walter's agile and dynamic Cleopatra initially appeared in the classic Cleopatra wig, only to whip it off shortly after as a statement about showing her true self. With no need for a wig, this intelligent Cleopatra quickly enchanted her fawning Antony and the intimate setting of the Swan's thrust stage brought both the passion and the politics up close to the audience.

Q&A with Director Gregory Doran 

Why did you decide to stage Antony in the Swan and not the RST?

I would think that these plays need very special consideration, especially in a company where we are doing them all the time. And I felt that a good production charges on four cylinders if you like, in that it's a combination of the right actors, the right play, the right timing for that play, and the right space. And my feeling about Antony and Cleopatra is that it's actually a very intimate play, set on an international scale. The backdrop to it is international but actually the play itself is intimate. The danger with doing it in the main house is that people feel the necessity of wheeling on pyramids! Getting from Rome to Egypt requires a kind of scenic representation.

My feeling with The Swan is that it would allow us the fluidity that Shakespeare in fact demands. It is famously a play that has more scenes than any other Shakespeare play, though the Folio edition does not break them down. It starts Act I Scene 1, and then it doesn't break the scenes down until the end of the play. Editors break the play down into about 42 - 44 scenes. So 44 scenes, if you're changing the set you're going to add 45 minutes to the running time, just by getting the set on and off. And that's not what Shakespeare asks for; it's not what he needs. So I thought the kind of intimate domesticity of the play would work fantastically well in this theatre, and I felt the fluidity you can get in this theatre, and what I would call a sort of neutrality, which is a vivid neutrality, can only help the sort of pacing of what I would describe as Shakespeare's film script.

The scenes are sometimes very short indeed, sometimes only four lines long, and having the galleries here, the top gallery too, allows you to just play the theatre, the space. I've seen endless versions of the monument. I was in a production of Antony and Cleopatra at Nottingham Playhouse where we pulled Antony up to the carpet. And I remember seeing Peter Brook's production - Glenda Jackson, Paolo Dionisotti and Juliet Stevenson hoiked Alan Howard up the carpet. And to me one of the most iconic moments in Shakespeare is this great hero, Mark Antony, suspended between heaven and earth, just hanging there, vulnerable as a newborn baby. It's as iconic as the balcony in Romeo and Juliet. It seems to me that you need somehow to create that. And of course with this theatre you have essentially got the balconies so you don't have to bring a great monument in - it's already here.

Your production is neither Elizabethan nor Elizabeth Taylor! How did you arrive at the style?

I think WH Auden, who loved this play, said, "If we had to lose all Shakespeare's plays, and luckily we don't have to, the one I'd keep is Antony and Cleopatra."

His notion of the play is that it requires not to be in modern dress - in the way that Julius Caesar can quite happily, politically respond to a modern world as easily. Antony and Cleopatra seems to me - Shakespeare chooses a metaphor of ancient Rome and ancient Egypt. And to me I just want that metaphor so I can interpret it or translate it in my own mind. Clearly what Shakespeare did was to use the metaphor but in the vocabulary of the day put it into modern dress and took his own - the Elizabethan, Jacobean costume of the day. Hence references to billiards and references to 'cut my lace'.

We decided that we would basically create Rome and Egypt in a way that would be recognisably Rome and Egypt. And I think - because it seems to me that they're you need to tap into your own sense-memory if you like - of what that means, of what Rome means, of what Egypt means, and of, I suppose, their different notions of what is exotic, what is oriental if you like. So I wanted to allow the metaphor to work for the audience rather than imposing another metaphor. I loved David Farr's production of Coriolanus a few years ago, but he translated ancient Rome into Samurai Japan. To me that was using one metaphor and translating it with another metaphor.

I went to Egypt last May [on holiday]. And clearly, you know, Shakespeare knew nothing about ancient Egypt, really, his pyramids were probably obelisks in fact. That's probably what he thought of them as. But it seems to me that we are, you know, not a Shakespearian audience, we are a 21st Century audience and we bring out own imagery and cultural baggage with us to apply to that.

What attracted you to directing this play?

It has to be the relationship of those two completely impossible people, and the fact that they are on public display all the time. It shocked us when we got down to rehearsing it that Antony and Cleopatra are alone on the stage in one scene only, and she says one line in that scene. It's the only time they're on stage together. And otherwise they are always - whatever they do is reflected, amplified by the court around them. And Cleopatra scores endless points by using her Venus flytrap around her, and I think that public display is part of who they are. They are locked into a notion of playing - Cleopatra is playing Cleopatra and Antony has been busy playing Antony, and then forgets how to play Antony. It's a very strange thing. You know he was this great person - everybody talks about him, Mark Antony. Every scene somebody is giving you a different perspective on Antony. And then at the end this really extraordinary thing happens, where in the middle of his desire actually to kill Cleopatra (because he thinks she's betrayed him) he suddenly has this extraordinary sense of dislocation. He can't match up to who Antony was. I talked to a psychiatrist friend of mine and said 'Look is this sense of dislocation that Antony goes through, is this actually a psychological process that is recognisable?' And he said this is an entirely recognisable process, in fact of a manic-depressive, who has intense highs and intense lows very close together. And on those intense highs they tend to make very bad decisions. And indeed you can analyse Cleopatra - although you diminish her by doing so, I feel - as she's absolutely a classic narcissist. She has to have people to reflect her performance, if you like. And I suppose it's the relationship of those people negotiating both who they are and who they were, and then coming together in the end to sort of make sure that they become iconic, they become almost kind of constellations in the sky. And yet what's so extraordinary is they are deeply, deeply flawed people. And that is why we love them. That I think is why we respond to them so thoroughly.

What did you look for when you cast Antony and Cleopatra?

Very importantly I make it a rule not to do these plays until I have what I think is the right cast in place for the major leads. And these plays are hierarchical - it is clear that Antony and Cleopatra, Octavius and Enobarbus have two thirds of the lines of the play. And Antony, of all the other characters, has more lines than the rest of them put together. So it's a huge part and Antony, in fact, is the biggest part, but the reputation is that it's Cleopatra's play. Now interestingly, having talked to Patrick about coming back to the RSC and what he might like to do, and indeed having seen him play Enobarbus - I saw the Brook production, I didn't see the Trevor Nunn production in 1972 - but knowing that he knew Enobarbus and must therefore have a view of Antony, it struck me that he would be a wonderful, wonderful Mark Antony and be a great balance to Harriet Walters' Cleopatra. It took me a while to persuade each of them that that was a good idea. But having done Lady Macbeth with Harriet and having directed her as Beatrice, it seemed to me that we had sort of covered some of the earlier ground of the tragic and the comic that we would find in Cleopatra. But the process of rehearsal persuaded me that Antony is, in fact, the most wonderful character, and the most extraordinary character, and I believe Patrick is doing something quite revelatory with it, in that I think, I think the problem has been of actors playing Antony the hero, and that is who Antony was. But Antony is falling apart, is drunk, is doing the most bizarre things. So he is as volatile, as capricious, as dangerous and as childish as Cleopatra herself. And I think it's a very surprising mixture but it actually balances the play. People often say, 'you see Antony and Cleopatra and it's Cleopatra's play, or it was Antony's play but where was Cleopatra? It's rare and dangerous and difficult to get the balance right. So it was - I spent a lot of time trying to get the balance right - we breed more Cleopatras than we breed Antonys.

Antony Sher once said that Antony bored him but he'd like to play Cleopatra! Why do you think there are more women keen to play Cleopatra than men to play Antony?

The guys get many more parts to play, don't they? The guys can go through all the Henry Vs, Macbeths and all those before they get to Antony. So by the time they get to Antony they can get a bit picky and not necessarily see Antony as such a great part. But I do think it is the most extraordinary part because it's so flawed. The actors I love are the actors who want to see the rounded 360 degrees of the character. And I think that's what Patrick has done and is doing as we go through the previews.

The RSC didn't originally stage Antony often, but now it seems to be part of the repertoire. Why?

It seems to me that there has been a vogue for putting on Antony and Cleopatra for a sort of exotic trip. To transport the audience to its kind of exotic heart. And yet I think the political background to the play is as important. To see that in the context of Octavius' play, I think in a way John Hopkins (who's playing Octavius) and I were talking about this in a notes session, and we were saying that in a way the first half is Antony and Cleopatra and the second half becomes Antony and Octavius and Cleopatra. And he said, 'mmm I think maybe we should change the title.'

Many productions cut the Parthian scene. Why did you decide to keep it?

It's a tiny little scene after the barge scene. I have to say when I played the messenger to Kate O'Mara's Cleopatra in this production at Nottingham Playhouse, right at the beginning of my career. And I also played the smallest part in Shakespeare, which is the dead body of Pacorus, King Orodes' son, in the Medes and Parthians scene, which is always cut. But we decided we'd do a full, uncut production, and so I got to play Pacorus. If I can tell you a brief story, it was a nightmare because we had a crisis at Nottingham Playhouse and there was a strike. It so happened that the first performance was in front of a live audience and I was brought on, I was dumped on the stage and I was picked up and carried off at the end of the scene. Only we were doing it on a rake, and I had never rehearsed it on a rake and so they brought me on stage, dumped me on stage and like a good dead body I rolled. And I rolled off the front of the stage and into the orchestra pit! And I had to stand up, get back onto the stage and die again. So I have a very, very fond memory of this scene! But there are two extraordinary things about the scene. One is Shakespeare's fabulous dynamic sense of juxtaposition. You get this big, boozy barge scene where you get the triple pillars of the world - it's like watching Stalin and Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta getting pissed as newts. It's an extraordinary picture, and it's followed by what the guys in the field are doing in Parthia - Parthia which is effectively modern-day Iraq. And these two soldiers are getting on with the dirty business of war on behalf of Antony and on behalf of Octavius Caesar. And there's a note of cynicism, a note of absolute pragmatism. These two guys go, 'well we've done this, we've killed Orodes' son, we could chase the Parthians, we could carry on this war'. Actually he says, 'I'm not going to do any more, because if you do more in the war than your captain, then what you do will perish. They don't like it when you're too successful'. So it's easy to cut this scene but it's mostly cut. In fact I went through all the rehearsal prompt scripts in the [RSC archive at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust], of all the past Antony and Cleopatras to see, to compare them. So I have on one script all the cuts that people have made in this very long play over the years, to find that there are certain lines that have never been said on the Royal Shakespeare stage - until tonight! And that includes quite a lot of the Parthia scene.

Why did you decide to have Pacorus killed with an arrow?

The Parthians were famous cavalry archers - and you know the phrase 'a Parthian shot'? To turn as you leave the room and give a devastating shot to the audience - to the people you're leaving behind - that is because when you fought the Parthians, they would seem to retreat on horseback, and then they would turn round and fire their arrows at you as you chased them, and they were devastating shots. And so they were referred to as 'darting Parthians' or 'darting Parthia'. So yes, we kill him with a dart.

Why did you decide to use a real snake?

You know famously you get round to Act 5 of Antony and Cleopatra, and you're in the last five, ten minutes of the play and on come the asps. And there you go - what are you going to do? especially in a theatre of this size, where people are very close, are you going to have a little puppety snake? It's a crucial moment of the play and if you see kind of Kermit the Frog pop up it's not going to work, is it? I have to tell you - at the same time, real snakes are really difficult to work with, not only to get them to get them to go down your bra, as Harriet will tell you. We have a little snake. He's called Billy Snakespeare. On the little thing the stage management have got him backstage as Billy Snakespeare. When Billy Snakespeare sloughs his skin he goes blind, because the skin goes over his eyes. And when you pick him up when he's blind he gets into a bit of a panic. So that's not fun. We also have a Charmian - and maybe at the auditions I should have said, 'what do you think of snakes?'- we have a Charmian who is almost clinically registered ophidiophobic so when the character reaches for the snake I thought Charmian was actually going to faint. And then she has to apply the asp to her arm as well. So yes, it's quite a difficult process. We also learned, to our cost, that snakes, of course, need feeding. And at snake-breeders in this country, you get frozen packs of little pink, dead mice. Which are currently in the freezer at the stage door! And they have to be warmed up and fed to the snake so that the snake has time to digest it before you pick it up again, because if the snake hasn't digested it you'll have dead baby mouse all down your front. I just want to open up to you some of the difficulties technically of working with snakes and live creatures!

Is Cleopatra an unusual character in Shakespeare's writing? Are there others like her?

I recently did a dramatisation of Venus and Adonis. And Venus – Shakespeare writes at the beginning of his career, probably 1593 - Venus is as sexy and capricious and as comic and as tragic as Cleopatra is. It's like seeing an early sketch for Cleopatra. But there isn't, is there, another character as – I think Kate in The Taming of the Shrew has that kind of fiery spirit but it comes from a deep-seated pain, I feel. It's an interesting argument to say he does Julius Caesar in 1599, has a huge success with it as far as we can gather. Ben Jonson tries to cash in on the success with Sejanus and fails. But it is what, eight years before he returns to the subject of Antony and Cleopatra, and after a gap in the story chronologically as well. The boys who are playing those parts are growing up and getting better, and by 1608 that boy, whoever he was– who probably wasn't a boy any more for one thing (he wasn't going to be a squeaking Cleopatra) was pretty sensational by that time. By the time the theatres close and reopen again there aren't the 'women' to play any of the parts, are there? Kynaston carries on playing women's parts, and dressing up as a woman and being hoiked around Hyde Park, until quite a long time, before the girls learn to play those big parts. And then the play's a bit neutered – Dryden's All for Love is better for Antony than it is for Cleopatra – he tidies up Cleopatra a bit.

How did you tackle showing the "middle-aged" passion of Antony and Cleopatra?

The weird thing about it in this play is that it's not private and that there's something really strange about the voyeuristic thing of them happily snogging in front of the messengers from Rome and in front of the rest of the court, and Egypt clearly is this heady, sensual place. No I think there's – as it happens Patrick and Harriet are two very sexy middle-aged people and – I hope Harriet's not listening to this on the monitor - or Patrick, come to that – so the expression of sexuality is both wonderful and tawdry at the same time. And what Shakespeare's very good at doing - you know he introduces the whole play by having Philo talk about, you know, 'a strumpet's fool' and 'a tawny front' and all these very derogatory terms for this old slapper Cleopatra and this old ruffian Antony. And part of the audience are going 'she really shouldn't be doing that at her age' or 'he should put a shirt on'. There's a sense that both of them are regarded by many people around them as being foolish for showing passion at that stage in their lives. And yet Shakespeare makes that both wonderful and terrible at the same time. You know when he cries out 'let's have one other gaudy night' you know how sex and drug-fuelled that's going to be and you're both admiring of them and pitying them at the same time.

Do directors have to make up their mind about whether Cleopatra is "tawdry or wonderful"?

I think she's both, isn't she? Harriet said to me at one point, 'How do I play her infinite variety?' And I said, 'you don't'. You play her moment by moment. And the perception of moment by moment will hopefully convey the infinite variety, which after all is Enobarbus' propaganda to the Romans anyway. Well yeah, you know, it's like she said 'I'm meant to be the most beautiful person in the world.' Cleopatra wasn't actually the most beautiful person in the world anyway, but she has such astonishing wit, presence, vivacity, that she could persuade you of anything.

Did you examine any of Shakespeare's sources?

Shakespeare's closest source in this play is Plutarch's Life of Mark Antony, and we read that in the Thomas North translation that Shakespeare clearly had open by his side when he wrote it. Clearly also in the very famous 'the barge she sat in' speech it's almost word for word what Plutarch writes, though Shakespeare turns it into one of the most extraordinary pieces of English literature. And it solved several difficult bits in the text for us, to work out why certain things were happening and why he was changing certain things, by going back to Plutarch, and go, 'well, he's actually not called this person Dolabella, he's clearly tied him up with Taurus there, because he's just following the text. He's not thinking about how the doubling works, which is what we're thinking of. And the closeness of what he changes in the text becomes very fascinating. My favourite scene in the play is where, when everybody seems to be flooding away from Antony's side, there's a mass defection from Antony's side after the battle of Actium, and in fact pre-the battle of Actium too, a group of solders are on sentry duty and they hear this extraordinary noise, seeming to come from the earth or perhaps from the air, and one of them says 'Tis the god Hercules, whom Antony loved, now leaves him'. And if you go back to Plutarch that scene is there, although the sound is of a great big party going on, and it's Bacchus, god of wine, leaving Antony. And Shakespeare has made a particular choice, that it's Hercules, and sort of Antony's strength leaving him at that point. So it's useful to go back to sources to try and see what it is that Shakespeare is getting at, or why he has changed it for a particular reason and identify what that reason might be.

Do you think Cleopatra was with Antony for love? Or other reasons…?

I think love is there, but I think it comes a little bit further down the list! And maybe that's because of the age thing too. I feel that Cleopatra always has a sort of a weather eye on the political situation. Clearly it is going to be very useful for her to align herself with Mark Antony and to keep in with Rome. She makes a miscalculation in that Antony does not seize power. If Antony seized power in Rome and she is still with him, then there is a new empire. And the scene of the donations of Alexandria in the second half, where we hear that he has indeed gone back to Cleopatra and is handing out provinces and kingdoms left, right and centre, that clearly is the beginning of a notion that they are going to be a new world order together. But what they don't calculate is Octavius' own ambition there as well. And I think often it's ambiguous and often I don't think she necessarily knows, but I think in the end, when they have lost the battle of Actium, when they send challenges, or rather they send their schoolmaster to Octavius to negotiate for them, clearly Antony has sent a series of proposals, and Cleopatra privately has sent hers too. When the schoolmaster comes back, Antony knows that Octavius has said 'Fine. Nothing to do with you, Antony. You just give up. Cleopatra, if you'd like to send me Antony's head on a plate, you can have anything you want.' And Cleopatra is so shocked by the fact that he knows her negotiating position that she just says 'What, that head, my lord? As if I would send that head!' So she clearly is – and through the Thidias scene, an ambassador is sent by Octavius to Cleopatra to negotiate with her, and Antony comes in on him kissing her hand and is furiously jealous. Clearly she has at that point decided. She has kids, remember. She has Cesarion by Julius Caesar. She's got to look out for her own.

Some people think Act 5 is a flaw of this play. What do you think?

What I think is most fabulous about the last act, which I'd never quite understood before until starting to work on it, because famously Antony - Patrick Stewart always says 'Oh great. Back in the dressing room. Ten o'clock. Fantastic. Got another 15 - 25 minutes before Cleopatra dies.' And people feel that that's a flaw in the play. But in fact what you see is two different people dealing with their own deaths. And dealing with their own myths, because Cleopatra has to make it known to Octavius that she is preparing to carry on living, and to carry on negotiating her living conditions, to con him so that she can be left alone long enough to kill herself. Now clearly what we have in Plutarch is actually Octavius' propaganda machine putting that story out. I don't think actually she died killing herself with an asp. I think she was murdered by Octavius in the end. But because history is written by the conquerors, that's why we get Octavius' story. And Shakespeare changes the story at the end and takes a particular view of that. But he does make clear that here is a woman who is also a politician as well as a lover, as well as a mother, though he doesn't push that. I have seen productions where there are crowds of children on the stage, and you go 'I don't want to be – get those children off!' Because you don't want to get confused by 'oh, that's not a very good mother, is it?''

What do you think is the role of Enorbarbus?

It's a wonderful part, isn't it? And Shakespeare takes just virtually the name from Plutarch – there's very little of Enobarbus, or Ahenobarbus, recorded in Plutarch – and creates this extraordinary character. Well he's yet another mirror in which we view Antony. He's somebody who is as debauched as Antony is at the beginning, he's gone native just in the way that Antony has in Egypt. And yet what is heartbreaking about his journey through the play is how he finds his position more and more untenable, and there's a wonderful speech where he says 'I could go, I should go now, I should leave him.' But actually those who stay earn a place in the story, as it were. And he decides to stay, and then eventually he goes. And his to-and-fro-ing journey allows us to constantly judge what we think is going on. Would we stay with that drunken old idiot? You know, Lawrence Olivier called Antony a twerp when he played it. He said, 'I just don't know what to do with this part, he's a twerp.' And when Patrick and I were discussing it he said, 'That's what's wonderful about him. He is a twerp'. And Enobarbus eventually, when he sees this wilful self-destruction going on, he has to leave. I think it's Shakespeare – I think Enobarbus is clearly in love with, clearly adores this man, and I think it's his beating heart, his simple beating heart, that we relate to so strongly as he constantly gives us a perspective on the play. It's interesting, isn't it, Shakespeare, one of the things we most notice directing and performing him, is how many of the characters give asides to the audience. What asides do, especially in this theatre, is to get a character to say 'look at this from my perspective.' The play that has the most asides is Cymbeline. There are thirteen people who have asides to the audience. And so at the end, where you have this extraordinary denouement, with everybody coming on and saying 'Oh you are my long-lost brother', it works, because you are waiting for that person you have become complicit with to have their story resolved. In Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra does speak to the audience but very rarely. She mostly speaks to everybody else on stage. Antony does speak to the audience, but the person who speaks to us most is Enobarbus. And therefore that's why we like him so much, in a way, because he asks us to share his perspective and his dilemma.

What do we learn from Enobarbus' defection and death?

Another writer – indeed Plutarch – has Enobarbus defect. Let me get this right - the defection comes before the Battle of Actium in Plutarch. And Shakespeare has him defect after the battle, when everybody else has gone he stays with him, and finally defects. He puts that off, and he juxtaposes the defection against Antony's triumph. He wins the first day of skirmishes. He doesn't win the war, but acts as though he has won the war. And that scene of great triumph is juxtaposed against this night-time scene with Enobarbus dying. And that's an astonishing juxtaposition, which intensifies our sense – because we don't know, we think Antony's going to triumph and Enobarbus has leapt onto the other side at the wrong moment.

How did you deal with the fact that the audience knows that Antony and Cleopatra will die?

The most difficult thing directing Shakespeare for me, and getting the actors to understand and really play, is what I call 'crossroads'. We all know how the story finishes. We have to cheat you into thinking you don't know how it finishes, that we might do it different that night - that Juliet might wake up in time! And if you think 'hurry up and die, because we know what's gonna happen', if that happens it becomes tedious and dead. If the actors come to those crossroads, and because they know they go that way they don't for a moment go '…Ok I'll go that way.' That's what's riveting, that's what happens when productions really work. And at the moment when Antony is triumphing, and Enobarbus is dying, you shouldn't think 'yeah, but you just wait a minute' and Antony's hitting the rocks and committing suicide. Because we both know the story – it's like kids being taught fairy stories, they know what happens in the end, but want to be told the story, to be thrilled by it. We pretend that we don't know what happens next.

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