Thursday, October 02, 2003
Fanfare please: my reviews of the 5 plays we saw at Stratford last month. Better late than never, eh? And I intend to make up for the delay with sheer volume of text. (Stop groaning.)
(For those of you unfamiliar with the Stratford Festival, or interested in my reviews of the previous batch of plays we saw this season - Agamemnon, Electra, Present Laughter, The Taming of the Shrew, and The King and I - see here.)
This last trip we took in 5 plays: The Birds, by Aristophanes, Pericles, Troilus & Cressida and Antony & Cleopatra, all by Shakespeare, and Gigi, the musical based on the novel by Colette.
Let's begin with the first, and the worst. The Birds is among the worst shows I've ever seen at Stratford. Comedy is legendarily short-lived, and The Birds is now about 2500 years old, well long enough for the jokes not only to have gone stale but to have moulded over and crumbled into dust, and the dust itself to have blown away into nothingness. A significant percentage of the jokes are puns in Greek (and hence not jokes at all in modern English) or are incomprehensible references to specific Athenians (ditto). Beyond this, a major element of the plot is a satire of Athenian religion; Pisthetairos, as part of his scheme to build a city of the birds, comes up with the notion of laying seige to the gods by refusing to allow the smoke of sacrifices fair passage to Olympos, thereby starving the gods of nourishment. Needless to say, this is so much gibberish to us, as we don't believe anything of the kind.
Much of the social satire, however, could work extremely well, if properly updated. Thus: Pisthetairos and Euelpides (played, respectively, by Keith Dinicol and Bernard Hopkins) leave Athens to find a more congenial life in a city less beset by lawsuits. The opportunities for satire on the contemporary North American city - and our penchant for setting out for ever-greener pastures in ever-further suburbs, which we then blight with every vice and complexity we ran away there to escape - are obvious. The birds repeatedly turn to the audience asking us to vote The Birds best play; the opportunity to satirize modern Oscar campaigns is again obvious. Specific parasitic types who make their way to Cloudcuckooland in the original include a naked poet, a hungry soothsayer, a priest with a portable altar, a surveyor, a seller of newly-minted laws from Athens, and a freelance informer. Most if not all of these satires are limp on the page; the specific social context that animated the satire is gone. But the modern analogues are also obvious, and obviously ripe for satire: the performance artist in search of a public grant; the diversity consultant out to ensure that various species of bird are properly represented in city government; the feng-shui practitioner eager to advise on proper placement of buildings and furniture; the real-estate developer looking to put up cheap and shoddy buildings; the EPA official demanding an environmental impact statement for the construction of the city; the trial lawyer looking for opportunities to sue the new city based on the findings of all of the foregoing. This is, I think, the only way to save the play: by updating it ruthlessly, treating it as a general concept on which to hang pointed contemporary satire.
Unfortunately, the director of this production, Nikos Dionysios, took exactly the opposite route, to disastrous effect. Whenever possible, he keeps close to the original text. Most of the jokes are limp at best; at worst, they are so incomprehensible you don't even realize a joke has just been told. He has directed his actors to speak slowly and with exaggerated effect, as if telegraphing the message, "this is a comedy" would get laughs. Apart from being alienating and bizarre, his decision wrecks the comic timing of the few jokes that have managed to survive. It gets worse. Visual "jokes" are ruined as well. His poet, for reasons that are obscure, wears prison stripes, and howls like a banshee rather than sounding like any poet I've ever heard, good or bad; his scientist does not actually use any amusing scientific jargon, and stomps and waves his hands like a lunatic on the subway. These are not caricatures; I don't know what they are. It gets worse. The play, already overlong, is padded out with "dances" that consist of men in bird suits hopping up and down to New Age music. There's no fluidity to their movement, no excitement, not even skilfull acrobatics - and they don't look like birds (the actors actually do quite a good job of moving like birds when they *aren't* dancing). Visually inert, lyrically limp and backed by the most insipid synthesized music, the dances are torture to sit through.
This production is a disaster from start to finish. I can't even really praise the bird costumes, which are garishly colored and make the birds look like refugees from Sesame Street. I have heard through the grapevine that Richard Monette, the artistic director of the Festival, pressed the director to make the production more accessible, update the jokes, etc. Lord knows, Monette can get a laugh, and he must have known that this production wasn't going to get any. But he obviously didn't put his foot down. Stratford cannot afford disasters of this magnitude, not even in the relatively cheap Patterson theater. I expect they'll never do Aristophanes again after this debacle. Which is a pity.
Thankfully, the next show we saw was Pericles, on the Festival stage (which, for reasons I can't fathom, Monette is calling "The Adventures of Pericles" rather than "Pericles, Prince of Tyre" as Shakespeare titled it). The contrast could not be greater. Pericles is a thin play, with little in the way of character and not much poetry either. But with its exotic locations and richness of incident, it is the perfect canvas for a creative designer. And in this production, Stratford - and, specifically, John Pennoyer, the designer - has outdone itself.
Stratford has an interesting process, not typical for the contemporary theater, more comparable, in some ways, to the way a movie studio works. Well in advance of casting, the production is designed. By the time the actors show up, pretty much everything is in place, and, since the design frequently expresses the directorial vision, the actors have to fit themselves quickly into the roles as conceived by the design. And there's no real time to change course, because the design takes month to execute and rehearsal time is measured in weeks. Stratford's process has been termed "tyranny by design," but this production of Pericles shows just how good a show an effective tyrant can put on.
The tale told is a simple one. Pericles, a good ruler in Tyre, arrives at Antioch to win the hand of the king's daughter by answering a riddle. The riddle reveals (rather obviously; it's not much of a riddle) that the king is, infact, the incestuous lover of his daughter, and Pericles, fearful of retribution now that he knows the horrible secret, flees. He has various adventures, acquires a bride in Pentapolis, then loses her in childbirth during a tempest and tosses her coffin overboard. He deposits his newborn daughter with the royal family of Tarsus. When he returns to bring her home years later, they inform him she is dead; they do not tell him that the queen ordered her murdered because her beauty and grace detracted from her own daughter's virtues. Pericles falls dumb, and is only roused back to health and life when he is spectacularly reunited with both his daughter and his wife, neither of whom have died. The whole thing is narrated by the ghost of John Gower, a medieval poet who rises from the grave at the start of the play, and descends back in at the close.
As should be obvious, this is not a very "realistic" play. There aren't really any 3-dimensional characters, and the situations are fantastic. We're in the realm of fairy tale - or, as Shakespeareans have termed his late plays, "Romance." As an aside: I am puzzled by critics who say that Shakespeare's turn away from the realistic was some kind of innovation of his later years. All the elements of Romance are present from the beginning of his career. How else would you characterize Aegon's woeful speech in the first scene of The Comedy of Errors? If this is not a fairy tale, a Romance, what is it?
In any event, Pericles - like The Comedy of Errors - was enormously popular in Shakespeare's day. The story lends itself to spectacle (tempests, exotic locales, etc.), it overflows with pathos, and good wins out in the end: all things that are good for the box office. For all these same reasons, the play has been mocked through the ages by the critics (starting with Ben Johnson) for being a mouldy and sentimental piece of popular schlock. After reading the play, I was inclined to agree with Johnson; having seen it on the stage, and staged so well, well, what's so bad about pathetic, sentimental schlock?
The production makes the absolute best possible use of the possibilities of stage and script. The exotic locales of the original are obscure; these are transposed into modern equivalents. So: Tyre is Greece; Antioch, Arabia; Tarsus, India; Pentapolis, Japan; Ephesus, Indonesia; Mytilene, China. Each locale is represented exquisitely, with lavish costumes, draperies, and the perfect accents of furniture. Gower, the narrator, is got up as a Buddhist spirit in a loincloth, dusted a funerary white; he rises, at the start, from a hole in the stage floor, surrounded by white sheets that will become, in turn, a tent of Araby (Antioch); the drapes of Greece (Tyre); the sails of Pericles' ship; and so forth. The metamorphosis of the stage with each change of scene is marvelous to watch; this is stagecraft at its best, creating effects that have an immediacy and illusionary power that cannot be approximated by any photographic medium of drama.
Pericles is played by Jonathan Goad, a rapidly rising star on the Stratford stage, and he plays the part flawlessly, with heroism, with deep pathos - but also, at precisely the right moments, with humor (e.g. when Pericles, finally emerged from his deep sorrow and overflowing with joy at reunion with his daughter, notices Lysimachus and says, abruptly, "who is this?" - a very simple line, but the reaction is played perfectly, and perfectly provides release from the lachrymose scene preceding). One believes in his essential goodness, but also in his essential humanity, and when he finally passes the limits of his capacity for suffering, his numb despair is as believable as was his prior determination to survive or his later joy at reunion. Goad has done excellent work in the past as Hotspur and as Jack Cade among other roles. There are rumors that next year Goad will play Macbeth, which is strange casting, but I'd be happy to see him do anything at this point.
Second honors for this production must go to Thom Marriott as Gower. Marriott is an absolutely convincing spirit; he never mocks or camps up the illusion he is creating, which would be fatal, but neither does he treat it with a fatal solemnity. This ghost knows he is summoned to tell a story, and so he does. His sonorous voice and doughy yet supple body and perfectly tuned to the part and the conception thereof in this design. I was very impressed with Marriott last year as Richard Duke of York in the Henry VI plays, but this performance takes him to a new level.
The other roles are generally well-played as well, but there are three parts that are a bit weak. Nazneer Contractor is an adequate but not an inspired Marina. She is childishly innocent, even pouty in the face of death (when she is set to be murdered by the servant of the queen of Tarsus) and in the face of degredation (when she is sold into prostitution), where what is wanted is a kind of saintly innocence. She is beautiful and obviously very young (and plays even younger), but she doesn't display the wisdom beyond her years that should be necessary to turn the heart of, say, Pandar, the brothel's steward, who threatens to rape her to rob her of her virgin's modesty and make her suitable for her new profession. Charles Azulay as Simonides is less-than adequate; alone among the potentates of the drama, he lacks convincing authority. The scene where he pretends to object to the match between Pericles and his daughter is odd on the page; on stage, his wholly inappropriate petulance only makes one wonder why Pericles bothers asking permission. As Azulay was an equally inadequat Lun Tha in The King and I - both as a singer and as an actor - I can only wonder how he was selected for the company this season. Finally, and most damagingly, Simonides' daughter Thaisa, Pericles' bride, is played downright amateurishly by Karen Ancheta. No emotion is convincingly conveyed by her performance, and it is a role that demands pathos, lest Pericles' devotion seem bizarre. She alone among the cast seems to trivialize the play. Her casting is all the more bizarre because, in spite of being of East Asian ancestry, she was *not* cast in The King and I. So, presumably, she can't sing. But apart from these three the cast was very fine, and on the whole, I cannot rate this production highly enough.
Troilus and Cressida was the third play we saw, and I was apprehensive. The play is very difficult: the poetry dense, the characterizations apparently inconsistent, the plot confusingly complicated, the genre itself obscure. And more than anything, the play is just plain *nasty.* There is not one character - with the possible exception of Hector - who arouses our admiration, nor even our pity. The play could as easily have been written by Brecht as by Shakespeare. I was curious to see what Stratford - and Richard Monette, the director - would make of this very hard text.
In preparation, I re-read the Iliad and, for the first time, read Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde (albeit in a verse translation rather than the original - forgive me; I plead a brevity of time). The Iliad was, I'll admit, tough going; the Lattimore translation is very formal and correct, and Homer himself is largely lacking a sense of humor. But there are moments that stay with you always: Hector tossing his babe in the air on the walls of Troy; Menelaos enraged when Paris is whisked away from death by Aphrodite; Ajax nearly single-handedly defending the beached Argive navy from the assaults of the Trojans; the endless combat over the body of slain Patroklos; Hector, stading before the gates of Troy, struck terrified by the warlike form of Achilles running towards him in the aspect of Ares; Achilles and Paris weeping their dead in Achilles' tent. And when he chose to, Homer could paint an image in words as vivid as Rembrandt could in oil. It is a commonplace, I think, that Homer's Greeks and Trojans knew no chivalry. His Hector is, essentially, a fool and a loser, who "slays" Patroklos only after he is already struck fatally by another, who loses his contest with Ajax and is found more often in the rear than in the front, whose success is owed to the gods who continue to aid the Trojans even as they are forbidden from aiding the Greeks, who rashly presses the fight when there is neither reason nor good augur, and then, when the tide has turned, refuses to seek shelter in the city for honor's sake, but who flees before Achilles in the final, fatal contest. And yet, to a later age, Hector was the only hero, the only human being in a contest of god-like men, the only one who does not want to fight, who knows his cause is not just and regrets it, the only one who arouses pity.
Chaucer, of course, wrote a tale of chivalry, and of courtly love, its kissing cousin. Troilus makes a one-line appearance in Homer, and Cressida does not appear at all in the poem, so Chaucer has free rein to do what he likes with them, and he uses them to subtly satirize the cult of courtly love. This cult was a strange thing, the worship of the god of Love, explicitly opposed to marriage and constructed as a kind of parody of Christianity (with the Lady, object of selfless devotion, taking the place of Christ). How this notion ever got going is a question for another time; what is interesting is how useful, and how useless, the Trojan War is as a setting for a critique of this value system. For the Trojan War was started, after all, by the goddess of Love (Aphrodite gets Discord's golden apple for offering Paris the greatest beauty in the world, Helen, who unfortunately happens to be married to Menelaus, and her abduction provokes the Greek expedition to lay seige to Troy and bring her back) and ends in Troy's destruction. What, then, of the cult of Love? Perhaps this is why Chaucer chose it as a setting for his tale.
Chaucer's Troilus is not terribly interesting; struck stark by Cupid on first seeing Criseyde, he is being punished by the love god for his previous disdain for lovers and their sighs. Now, struck himself, he is undone. He is succored by the most interesting character in the story, his friend Pandarus, who absorbs himself completely in Troilus' suffering for love, to the point that he endeavors - successfully - to persuade his niece, Criseyde, to surrender her virtue to him to ease his sufferings. It's an extraordinary situation, and Pandar is a very strange character; I'm sure modern critics of a psychosexual bent have had lots of fun explaining him. It's not that he has any lust for his niece that he discharges vicariously through Troilus; neither, at least in Chaucer, does it appear that he lusts for Troilus, and discharges *this* vicariously through Criseyde. It is, perhaps, their youth he envies, and feeds on through his Pandaring, even as he thereby ages them with Experience. In any event, he is a splendid, original invention, only nearly matched in the poem by Criseyde. Her drama - of submission to the desires of her lover, Troilus, and then, when she is sent from Troy to the Greek camp in exchange for Antenor, a Trojan general, submits in time to a new lover, Diomed, against all her vows - is either incredible, horrible, or deeply pathetic, depending on one's views of love and womankind. I do not doubt that she truly loved Troilus as she said she did. But she is, perhaps, not so chivalrous, not so besotted with the cult of love; and, when return to him is impossible, she does not choose to die. He is, after all, only a man, and this, I think, is the heart of Chaucer's critique of the idolatrous nature of the chivalrous cult.
Chaucer does not attack chivalry in arms as he does the cult of courtly love; that is left to Shakespeare. A common view holds that Shakespeare was deeply conservative in his politics; that he was not pro- or anti-war but pro-chivalry, not biased towards any class but deeply invested in the class system, the medieval Great Chain of Being. In this view, Ulysses speech in the first act of Troilus & Cressida is taken for Shakespeare's own views on the importance of degree in maintaining order and discipline. I do not incline to this view. I do not think that Shakespeare had a proscriptive politics of any kind. He was, however, interested in description. And I can only conclude, from many instances in his work, that he was aware that success in politics is not synonymous with virtue, and that the proper ordering of classes is no guarantee of order in the state. Ulysses speech cannot be squared with the tragedy of Richard II as an expression of Shakespeare's politics; Shakespeare knew that a weak king, though legitimate, is a deep problem for the state, even as he also knew that a strong king, if illegitimate, is a problem of its own type. In Prince Hal and Henry V we have Shakespeare's greatest portrait of a successful king, but he is less clearly a picture of a good king, or even of a good man. Hal, after all, betrays his friends and kills his prisoners. Ulysses may think that proper respect for degree would bring order to the Greek camp, but his efforts to put his philosophy into practice - by building up Ajax to make Achilles jealous, and rejoin the fight - fail utterly; Achilles inclines more to uphold his private vow than to defend his public honor, and Ajax, puffed with pride, himself withdraws from battle.
Troilus and Cressida is, ironically, sometimes held up as evidence for the contrary view: that Shakespeare was a libertine who hated war and celebrated love. T&C is often described as a deeply nihilistic play, a play that tears down the happy lies we tell ourselves about our states, and exposes what the world looks like after seven years of fruitless war in a bad cause. But I don't know that that's quite right either. I do not know that this is a portrait of *the* reality any more than As You Like It is; rather, I think it is a play that gives to the satiric voice of Thersites full throat, and sees what nobility can survive its taunts and assaults.
Little does. Troilus, in the play, is a thing of hunger, eager to devour Cressida, no different, really, than Paris, a lustful dolt. Achilles is a vain coward, who is only able to kill Hector with much assistance after coming upon the Trojan hero when he is unarmed. Ajax is a rock-headed fool, and mocked as such by one and all. The play's twin geniuses are Pandar and Thersites, the former a terrifying caricature of the character from Chaucer, the latter a minor character from Homer (the only ugly man among the Argives) expanded into a bilious Brechtian chorus in the Greek camp. Only Hector seems admirable; he knows the Trojan cause is unjust (as he did in Homer), and he fights with honor. But he is also a fool, continuing the fight in a bad cause that he knows will lose, and fighting on a day when all the omens are ill, for the sake of the bubble reputation whose chase he should long since have outgrown. And Shakespeare denies him his most honorable action in Chaucer, when he argues vainly against trading Cressida for Antenor; the scene is absent from the play, and Cressida is dispatched without voiced dissent; "the times" permit no reprieve.
What is the play about? On the one hand, it bears comparison, I think, to Henry IV part i (which, coincidentally, I am seeing tonight), another story about vice and politics. Pandar is a kind of vicious parody of Falstaff, Hal's tutor in vice but also in humane knowledge; Pandar likewise is tutor to both Troilus and Cressida, but his laughter is deathly wicked where Falstaff's is life itself. And practically everyone in the play acts like a second-rate Hotspur, thinking with his spleen rather than with his brains. It also bears comparison with Romeo and Juliet, with Pandar in the role of the nurse and the Trojan War substituting for the feud (though the feud was taken far more seriously than this war is). To the extent that I have an opinion about what this play is, I think it is an attack on chivalry as disastrous in war (fight fair and you get slaughtered) and in love (like Menelaus and Troilus, you are doomed to be betrayed). It is not an attack on the sentiments that animate chivalry, which Shakespeare recognized as noble. Rather, it is a picture of a terrible world where these sentiments have no place, where Thersites' view of reality - "lechery! Still, wars and lechery!" - is all too accurate.
I am pleased to say that Richard Monette did an excellent job with the play, and fully immerses himself in its stinking ooze. He plays up the lechery to the hilt. His Troy is like the Playboy mansion in its heyday, every line delivered with a leer. Pandar is a truly terrifying creature, practically ready to devour Cressida himself so determined is he to see her deflowered. (When the deed is finally done, Pandar stalks the post-coital couple waving the bloody sheet and cackling.) The production is quite graphic; Paris and Helen simulate intercourse onstage; Patroklos walks around clad only in a towel (whipped off for effect at one point); Pandar fondles every low-status male character in the play, with his hands or his staff or whatever suggestive object is available. All the male characters go around basically naked from the waist up. I should stress that all this is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the play; it is a filthy business. But it is still something to sit through.
Monette made one interesting choice against the text, about which I cannot decide how I feel. When Cressida first arrives in the Greek camp, the Greeks press against her, begging for a kiss. She parries them with flirtatious wit, and is taken off by Diomed to her father's tent. As Monette stages it, the Greeks press in with much more than words; Cressida is man-handled and pawed by the lot of them, and her discharges of wit serve to delay, and not avert, the apparently inevitable ravishment. Diomed then comes to rescue her and bring her to her father. This provides a far more convincing psychological basis for her betrayal of Troilus than is evident in the text of the play - and a very different one from Chaucer's Criseyde. Monette's Cressida simply makes the necessary choice in a bad situation; if she is to survive in this hostile camp, she will need a protector, and if Diomed is to be he she will have to love him, as he demands. This is logical and makes Cressida much more sympathetic than she would otherwise be; it is also in tune with our moral sense as an audience. But I wonder whether Shakespeare's Cressida really deserves such an excuse made for her. In any event, it was an interesting choice, and very effective as played.
The entire cast did a great job; I cannot think of anyone to fault. Stephen Ouimette is vicious as Thersites; Bernard Hopkins horrible (in the best sense) as Pandarus; Peter Donaldson sage as Ulysses; Claire Jullien beautiful and moving as Cressida; Jeffrey Renn oafish as Ajax; Geordie Johnson noble as Hector; and David Snelgrove, another rising star, powerful as Troilus. Indeed, I think Snelgrove achieves the impossible and makes us genuinely sympathetic for this self-involved and lustful hero; he is not wise at the end, but we feel the pain of the little knowledge he has gained by his betrayal, and want to kill Greeks along with him to vent our common rage. The weakest performer was Jamie Robinson as Achilles, but the character is so despicable that his presence does little damage.
My only quibble with the production is the ending. After Pandar comes on to bequeathe us his diseases - and he is truly revolting by now, covered in open sores, wrapped in bandages and his eyes dripping pus - Monette chose to bring Thersites, Troilus and Cressida back on-stage for a final tableau, each under a red spot, and to have a voice-over recite the line from earlier in the play: "'tis but the chance of war." But, unless love be war, Pandar's fate owes little or nothing to battle, nor does Cressida's seduction. Whether this is an anti-war play can be debated, but it is certainly not a "make love not war" piece; indeed, love is at least as horrible as war in this drama. And the ending left me wondering whether Monette understood just how uncongenial this play is to any hedonistic utopia. Monette, I suspect, holds a live-and-let-live attitude towards matters erotic, and Pandar - who says leeringly to Cressida, before she goes to bed with Troilus, "if my lord get a boy of you,
you'll give him me" - is a vicious caricature of anyone with such views. Making this play an advertisement for free love is like making Anais Nin an advertisement for abortion rights; you are making the other side's case for him. Nothing in the play but the ending suggested to me that this is what Monette thought, but the ending gave me just a little pause. It didn't spoil the play, though, and I happily recommend this very worthwhile production.
We gave ourselves a bit of a break that evening, and saw Gigi. Now, this is not a very good musical, and I won't have that much to say about it. Suffice it to say that everyone in the cast seemed to be having a grand old time, and the feeling was infectious. The set was beautiful, the costumes were beautiful, and no one took herself too seriously. James Blendick, as Honore, seemed much more at home than he did as Alfred P. Doolittle last year. Jennifer Gould was radiant as Gigi, Domini Blythe warm as Mamita, and Patricia Collins appropriately terrifying as Aunt Alicia. And everyone seemed to be enjoying putting on awful French accents.
As I said, though, the musical is not a good one. There are no really memorable tunes, and the only two good songs - "Thank Heaven for Little Girls," and "I Remember It Well" cannot actually be sung with a straight face. But the biggest problem with the show is the profound dishonesty of it all. No one in the audience is actually nostalgic for the world depicted. No one would laugh merrily at the prospect of their own daughter in Gigi's position. And the ending! If everyone was going to be happy at the prospect of Gaston marrying Gigi, then why on earth doesn't he propose marriage as soon as he realizes he loves her? Why on earth does he go through the whole business of making her an offer to be his mistress? The whole thing is absurd. Gigi is an excellent example of self-satisfied, middle-class entertainment, a big, gaudy lie.
But it was fun while it lasted.
The final production we attended was Antony and Cleopatra, with Peter Donaldson and Diane D'Aquila in the title roles. This is a very hard play to put on: numerous scene changes, difficult characters, complicated plot. But it is a gorgeous play, and every director should relish the opportunity even as every actress cast as Cleopatra should dread it. I am slowly coming around to the conclusion that Cleopatra is not ideally played by a woman. It is extraordinarily difficult for any woman to measure up to the extravagant praise lavished on her, and very difficult as well for any woman *not* to appear to confirm the common Roman opinion that she is a manipulating slut. I have a fantasy, in fact, that Stratford would do a production of A&C casting Brent Carver as Cleopatra. I'm quite sure he would jump at the chance, and Richard Monette, I'm sure, would love to direct it. But I doubt they'll do the show again while he's artistic director.
In any event, I have mixed feelings about this production. First: the set and costumes. The Romans look appropriately Roman, and the Egyptians Egyptian. But why does Cleopatra roam the stage in a nightgown all the time? Where is her finery? Egypt's wealth and splendor are not at all in evidence, and this is a real loss for the play because we need to feel what it is draws Antony in, what Cleopatra's natural environment is that makes her so effective. And we get little of this.
Next: Antony. I adore Peter Donaldson. He did a magnificent Malvolio a couple of years back, and he absolutely knocked my socks off as George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. He does a fine job, and is perfectly cast, as Ulysses in Troilus, and likewise last year as Peachum in The Threepenny Opera. But he is cast very much against type as Antony, who is a big hearted, lusty carouser where Donaldson is apt to be aloof and critical. His Malvolio was so good because he was so convincing in the earlier parts of the play, when he is fully controlled, that when he cuts loose in his crossed garters his mania is startling. His Antony is strongest in Act IV Scene ii, the "make his followers weep" scene - but this scene is when Antony is least like Antony; not a good sign. On the whole, I found his performance interesting, and I am glad I saw it. But I was not convinced by it. I could not tell, watching him, why Cleopatra - or his soldiers - would have loved him so. He did not seem a ruined Hercules.
Worst: Cleopatra. Diane D'Aquila impressed me five years ago as Paulina in Winter's Tale. Since then, I have not seen her do anything I liked, and with each performance I am more convinced that she is a congenital over-actor. Her Cleopatra is utterly unconvincing; she has none of the allure, the justified narcissism that Cleopatra must have. But she also is unconvincingly in love with Antony. And her ordinariness makes him seem the more the fool. Why forgive her her many trespasses if this is all she is? And she is never worse, in this production, then in Antony's death scene, when she histrionically cries her woe like nothing so much as a bad actress, which Cleopatra never was. She is somewhat better preparing for her own death. It is essential for the actress playing Cleopatra to keep us guessing whether she truly loves Antony as he, helplessly, loves her, or whether she ultimately loves only herself, and enjoys Antony - as she did Caesar an Pompei before - while pleasure serves policy. In D'Aquila's performance, there is no doubt: she does not love him so. If this were a choice, it would perhaps be interesting, but I think it is merely a limitation of her ability. And it leaves Antony's love for her a greater mystery.
There are other problems with the production, notably with timing. The director, Martha Henry, rushes many scenes of tenderness and anger alike; she seems eager to get on with the plot, as if too aware of just how many scenes there are in the play. As a consequence, some crucial exchanges are almost crushed between speakers competing for their chance to talk rather than reacting to one another. She seems most comfortable, ironically, in the Roman scenes, and these are some of the strongest in the play - and the supporting cast was generally quite fine. Brad Rudy took over the crucial role of Enobarbus for the performance I saw (it is normally played by Wayne Best, whom I like a lot and was eager to see in the role), and he did a creditable job, though he did not bring to the role the sarcastic edge it deserves. Paul Dunn was an interesting and, I thought, effective casting choice for Octavius. He played him, essentially, as an honest man, genuinely devoted to his sister and authentically offended by Antony's extravagances. This is a surprising choice; I should think he is usually played as a cold and effective Machiavel. But it worked. I should mention Tim Askew as Eros, as he also played Aeneas in Troilus, two small parts; he has a freshness of delivery that I hope to hear more of. Barnard Hopkins was excellent as both Mardian and the Clown; Daniela Lama out-lucioused Cleopatra as her attendant, Charmian; and Andy Velasquez was carousing Sextus Pompeius.
I am not sorry that I saw this production, but I cannot recommend it, for fear that it will turn the attendee off to one of Shakespeare's richest tragedies. I hope Stratford does the play again soon, and does it better service.
This season was something of a disappointment, redeemed by two productions that I will remember for a long time: Pericles and Troilus and Cressida. Next year, they are doing a schizophrenic season of the deeply obscure and the most mainstream. They are doing Macbeth, Midsummer Night's Dream and Guys and Dolls on the Festival stage. But they are also doing Henry VIII, Cymbeline, King John and Timon of Athens. Most worryingly, they are essentially turning the Avon theater into a purely popular house; this year that stage hosted productions of Gigi, Present Laughter and The Hunchback of Notre Dame; next year it will host Anything Goes, Noises Off and The Count of Monte Cristo. I fear that the Avon is being sacrificed on the altar of a profitable festival, and while the festival must turn a profit, I wonder if this isn't too great a sacrifice. There is crowd-pleasing entertainment that is also up to Stratford standards; the Avon has hosted G&S's Patience, Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It and Henry V, Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and Wilde's Importance of Being Ernest in recent years. They can do better in that venue than next year's bill, and still be profitable, I have to believe.