This is Merlyn Q. Sell, at the Blackfriars Playhouse once again, blogging now about today’s staging session featuring Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Company, James Lochlin of University of Texas – Austin, and the ASC actors. This session is moderated by Sarah Enloe. The actors will be working scenes from Antony and Cleopatra based on suggestions from conference attendees. There was only one suggestion from attendees so Packer turned to the actors asking if there are portions of the current ASC production that they are stuck in and would like to work with in this session. The actors wisely demur. From the house, Dr. Matt Davies inquires about how actors can stage a broken heart. Packer says that is a moment that will be worked later. James Keegan finally responds to Packer’s request for problematic moments with a particular line of Antony’s that repeats the word “well”. Packer does admit that this staging session won’t be able to accommodate an attendees request to investigate raising Antony aloft, a moment that’s of particular interest after Bob Jones’ paper yesterday. Actor Rick Blunt offers up two moments wherein Enobarbus speaks to characters who are not on stage.
Staging begins with the first scene of the play. After the actors run through the scene as it is currently being performed, Packer explains her belief that the first scene provides first an explanation of how the world views Antony and Cleopatra and is immediately followed by the truth of the situation. Lochlin echoes the idea of two frames of reference competing for the audience’s focus and belief. The typical reception of the play seems to be about the tragedy of Antony – that he fails to keep his position through this relationship.
The actors next take on the scene where Antony chooses to fight by sea. As Packer points out, this scene can be problematic as Antony must know he is less likely to win by sea than by land but he makes that decision anyway. This scene holds the line Keegan had mentioned earlier. Packer initially talks to Sarah Fallon and asks that she portray Cleopatra not like Cleopatra the seductress, but as though she is trying to prove in this moment that she is as capable a military strategist as the men in the room. Packer then asks Keegan to support Cleopatra in this and that his decision is made because he’s prioritizing her wants. The redirect does immediately alter the blocking. The audience responds favorably to this stronger Cleopatra. The change seems to give Keegan more to play in the moment as well, both placating his soldiers and supporting Cleopatra. Keegan and Packer disagree a bit about whether the idea of Cleopatra as a general in this scene is consistent with Cleopatra’s flight from the battle later on. Eventually the disagreement seems to boil down to whether or not Antony’s ultimate allegiance lies with Cleopatra or the army. The spirited debate highlights the great deal of thought both have put into the role and their passionate defense of their positions is invigorating.
Next the group approaches the Enobarbus moment previously requested by Rick Blunt. Packer suggests that Enobarbus is in love with both Antony and Cleopatra. Packer directs Blunt to consider when he has done something he knows was stupid, and keep this in mind to understand that Enobarbus completely understands why Antony and Cleopatra have made their mistakes. Blunt ultimately interprets this direction as Enobarbus experiencing disappointment in people he loves dearly. When running the scene again, Blunt’s performance is decidedly more emotional and this Enobarbus is not the stoic soldier seen previously. Certainly it is a different performance, which most of the audience seems to respond to favorably, thinking those choices set up Enobarbus’ death in a more believable way. Packer asks Blunt to perform his final speech, keeping in mind the work that was just done. Almost immediately Packer takes Blunt back to further investigate the word “life”. Packer states that she is not yet believing that Enobarbus wants to die. Blunt responds, “I didn’t know I wanted to die.” He goes back to the top of the speech again and Packer stops again and asks Blunt to pay a little more attention to specific words. Packer commends Blunt bravery in taking the direction and working the speech in front of an audience. Lochlin commends Blunt’s final run at the speech as adding the layers and intensity without simply being bigger. Blunt seconds that, and adds how much work and preparation is required by an actor to be able to access an authentic feeling in each performance. Packer agrees and cautions that actors taking on this challenge have to exercise their skill in order to be able to recreate these performances in an authentic and safe way. The trap is always that an actor can be come indulgent and in Packer’s words do the “wanky, wanky, wanky thing”. Packer feels that the authentic presentation of feeling is an integral part of the creation of empathy between actors and audience. Packer cautions against an approach that disregards the empathic nature of theatre. Packer argues whole-heartedly for actors that embrace the pathos of the story and don’t become distracted by the logos of the work.
This session provides a lot for attendees (and no doubt the actors as well) to consider. As the floor is opened to the audience one attendee finds a way to unite the scholarship on this play with the work we’ve seen today. Does the play champion the love-based story of Antony and Cleopatra over the rational politics of Caesar? Packer suggests that Shakespeare wrote a string of lovers where men and women have equal agency and that that equal agency is the key to success in these relationships and potentially politics as well.