Last night, I saw my very first professional Shakespeare play (that I can remember). The plan had been for Wolf and Five to graciously take Honey and me to see Antony and Cleopatra, one of ol’ Bill’s most complex tragedies. Things didn’t work out exactly the way we had planned: due to circumstances beyond our control, Wolf was unable to join us for the play, but she insisted we go without her. The show must go on, you know.
I have to admit, I was a little worried. I’m not very good at following Shakespeare when I’ve got the text in front of me. Aside from the language and idioms being way out of my sphere, I’ve seen a couple of high school productions of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, and because the actors didn’t know what they were saying, I had NO CLUE what was going on. (Enter Cliff’s Notes and Wikipedia.)
Now, I have heard that when you see a professional performance, you can understand it better, because professionals know what they’re doing better than high school students. There’s no shock there. I have always been inclined to believe this, but not enough to buy a ticket, just to find out.
Happily, there was an educational bit before the play– they called it a preface– where a local professor gave a quick history around what happened just before the play’s setting. It was available for anyone who wanted to go, but it was a few hours before the play, so that people who already know didn’t have to be bothered. It was so useful to me. She gave a brief history of that part of the political sphere of Rome (Cleopatra was a smarty! Julius Caesar was murdered! That sort of thing.), and she also snuck in a few passages to look for in the play, and a couple of compare/contrasts to be aware of (the martial costume and set design of Rome compared to the soft, comfortable, home-iness of Egypt), and how these contrasts tore at the heart of Antony.
I used to think that I don’t like tragedies, but I don’t think that’s an accurate statement. I just don’t like the two tragedies that I was presented with in high school, Romeo and Juliette and Hamlet. UGH! BORING, WHINY PEOPLE, the lot of them! Looking back, though, I did like the Scottish play, but I had always assumed that was more to do with Scotland than anything else.
It turns out that I also really liked Antony and Cleopatra, although truth be told, I really just liked Cleo. The actress who portrayed her was emotive and natural to the point where even if I couldn’t follow the language, I could follow body language, tone of voice, and the pure emotion that she radiated. When she found out Antony had gotten married again when he went back to Rome, I bawled right there with her. (That is not a spoiler. Read your history.) And, you know, with tragedies, everyone you like dies by the end. This was no exception. When I left the theatre, I was still sniffling. I really need to remember to bring tissues with me to such events.
But because I’m not a connoisseur of Shakespearian performances, for me the stars of the show were the sets and the costumes– Okay, all of the sets and Cleo’s costumes. The sets were evocative more than informative, but even though there was a sign to tell us each time there was a location change, you knew just from looking at which part of the set was highlighted– the big pyramid looking thing is all lit up? We must be in Egypt. Those tall pillar things are all lit up? Rome…. and maybe Greece. Very little was added from scene to scene, location to location, but we always knew where we were. There are ropes to emphasize the big triangle on the floor? Clearly we’re on the bow of a big boat. Duuuuh. I loved it! It was so fascinating how a bit of rope transformed the same stage from one part of the world to another.
And then there were Cleopatra’s extravagant costumes. The play takes place over a period of ten years, so it would be unlikely that a woman of influence would wear the same outfit in more than one scene. Her dresses were all bursting with elegant color, cut to invite appreciation, while still being modest enough that you knew she was a woman to be respected. I’m serious. I want some of those dresses. I wonder if they come in plus sizes?
Overall, this experience has taught me a couple of things. For one, I don’t dislike Bill’s tragedies– just the ones about people I don’t like. For another, an experience set designed can make all the difference, when you’re still listening to gibberish. And finally, Wolf and Five rock for getting us tickets.
Image found here: http://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/640×360/p01xdc7r.jpg