Peter Brook and Shakespeare

Antony and Cleopatra

...... English audiences had to wait eight years [after his production of A Midsummer Night's Dream] for his [Brook's] return to Startford, where he directed a production of Antony and Cleopatra which opened at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on 9 October 1978. The casting of Glenda Jackson as Cleopatra, as Brook has stated, fulfilled a long-standing ambition of the two to work together on the play. A necessary condition was to find the right Antony. Once Alan Howard was available, the ambition became a plan. Howard's presence in the cast, and the choice of Sally Jacobs and Richard Peaslee as designer and musical director, suggested continuities with the Dream: in the event, the production showed closer affinities with what Brook had been doing in Paris in the intervening years.

The nature of the production stemmed from a number of clear and simple decisions, implemented with infinite pains and using to the full the outstanding joint resources of cast and director. The text was very lightly cut, losing only two very short scenes; a single set was used, modified in effect by simple large properties and by the occasional movement of hinged screens at its outer ends; costume, while generally suggestive of the Mediterranean world and of individual role and function, avoided both historical definition and visual splendour; music, though much used, rarely obtruded and was seldom introduced without invitation from the text or stage directions.

Antony and Cleopatra, II, vii

Brook (in sympathy with the views of Emrys Jones, whose New Penguin edition of the play was used (1)) saw the play as one of intimate action in a setting of threatening and intruding public events. Turning to advantage the fact that the action is made up of an unusually large number of short scenes, Brook used his setting to achieve very rapid continuity. With one interval, placed after III, vi (Octavia's return to Rome) and before Antony's reappearance in Egypt in III, vii, the play ran from 7.30 to 11.10. For so full a text, this was a rapid pace and it was achieved largely by superb continuity, as speaking was never rushed and often slowed down at moments of crisis. As with Lear and the Dream, Brook obtained a rehearsal period much longer than the season's norm: ten weeks for six principals, six for a further four actors and four to five weeks with the whole cast. As with the Dream, much rehearsal time was spent on exercises. The most apparent difference was in the approach to the text, which was read on the first day of rehearsals and towards which the cast were urged to direct each morning's exercises. The result was company playing of impressive strength and consistency: in this production there were no 'walk-ons', and many of the strong cast gave their best performances of the season.

The rapid succession of scenes which was integral to Brook's reading of the play was made possible by the set. Within the proscenium, four tall, translucent screens stood in a semi-circle, with wide gaps between them affording five entries. They enclosed the downstage area and the forestage, pushing most of the action well forward and counteracting the notorious lack of contact between stage and auditorium in this theatre. At the top, the screens were connected by further translucent sections, about half as long, which slanted inwards like the base of a polygonal dome. Behind the screens, the rest of the stage, a large bare area, could be seen stretching to back and sides neutrally hung with white. Outside the proscenium arch, some lower screens were hinged, three on each side. These were folded in towards the centre to afford a smaller, downstage space in front of them for the action of III, ii-vi. After the interval, they were open again, but were folded in once more for the final moments of the play, this time to enclose the dead Cleopatra and her women. At the base of the tall screens stood four benches. These were brought forward to set the stage for the Roman scenes. Until II, vii, the scene on Pompey's galley, the centre of the enclosure was occupied by a large rush mat, its weave emphasising its centre as the mid-point in the acting area. On it were four striped cushions, more being brought on for Pompey's banquet. The sudden flying of this large mat, dropping Antony to the stage from its upper edge, fused the one nautical image of the production - the rising carpet as a sail - with the scene's transition from polite to inspired drunkeness. The flying of this mat was the visual counterpart in the first half of the play to Cleopatra's monument, represented by another large carpet, of a vivid red. This descended slowly to serve as a backdrop for IV, xv, when the dying Antony is hauled up into the monument. After V, i, for which it remained hanging but only dimly lit, this carpet was laid out in the centre of the stage for the final scene. Only for the laying of this carpet and for the clearing up of the remains of the banquet after III, i, were stage hands used: all other movements of props were done by the cast. A further carpet, pale with narrow dark stripes, was the main playing area from III, xii to IV, xv, being used at last for the dragging of the dead Antony upstage and out of sight at the end of IV, xv. A carpet, recalling the one used as playing-space by the company who accompanied Brook to West Africa in 1972, figured largely in the early weeks of rehearsal as the only playing-space. The other large properties were two round brass stools, standing each on a smaller brown carpet at the two downstage corners of the mat. In the first half, they were covered by kidney-bean-shaped cushions, black with red shadings: when they returned in the later stage of the second half, they were uncovered, and much use was made of the reflected yellow light from their tops during the sequence leading up to Antony's suicide. Their metallic gleam carried both hints of military action and a less defined threat of destruction.

It was to one of these stools that Antony retreated to prepare for his suicide, sitting in profile to the audience, crossing his legs and loosening the least formal of his various tunics in a manner with Japanese overtones. Eros, having stabbed himself behind Antony, died slumped over the other stool. A third brass stool, taller than these two, was introduced as the throne when Cleopatra in turn prepared for her suicide.

While the carpets and large properties (which included two more of the dark kidney-bean cushions for the second half) provided the intimate and flexible setting for most of the play's many scenes, the arc of screens dominated the stage throughout. Not only did they allow for overlap between scenes, often of a startling kind when dialogue relating to a character about to enter was juxtaposed with the move of that character into position for the next scene (especially striking, for instance, at II, ii-iii, Antony and Octavia; II, vii-III, i, the breaking up of Pompey's banquet by the entry of Pacorus, knocking over benches before being struck down by the pursuing Ventidius; and IV, v-vi, where the entry of Enobarbus seemed almost to answer Antony's quiet, unheard call for his lost friend).


Twice, scenes shared the stage: IV, x and xi were played with the two groups of characters side by side on the carpet; IV, xiii, where Cleopatra plans to escape to her monument and to send Mardian with false news of her death, was played upstage, behind the screens, while Antony remained downstage, prostrated in grief, his outstretched arms supported by the two brass stools. The depth of the stage was elsewhere used with striking effect for actions half-seen behind the screens. Enobarbus watched Actium far upstage, back to audience, while the lights faded three times nearly to blackout and disordered noise and music swelled and faded. At his entry in III, xi, Antony came forward to speak his first speech within the enclosure, behind which little light remained: throughout the scene, his followers remained in this obscure area behind the screens. Most startling of all was the moment, during Antony's last victorious battle, when blood-soaked sponges were suddenly thrown at the four screens from behind and slid down, leaving their stains as part of the setting for the final action.

Visually, the action was chiefly remarkable for its lucidity: each scene had been allowed to grow into its own shape, and each scene made its contribution to the unfolding action with such clarity that the loss of so small a section of text as III, v left a palpable gap in the narrative by leaving the fate of Pompey and Lepidus undefined. Attention was focused throughout on the actors: costume too aimed constantly at clarifying their relationships, functions, even moods. Cleopatra's variety, unusually well realised by the enormous vocal and emotional range displayed by Glenda Jackson, was reflected in a chameleon-like succession of robes, encompassing a wider variety of shape and colour than the rest of the costumes put together and transforming her by turns into an almost androgynous glamour, a hieroglyphic formality, a timeless North African grief and abasement and finally a subdued regal splendour. Apart from Antony's gift of a pearl, hung in a long necklace, she had no ornaments. Against her, in an opposition more powerfully realised than in most productions, stood Octavia, a slight, diffident figure, conspicuous in the only yellow gown on stage, but no icicle or mere political pawn. Affectionate with her brother , her response to Antony's 'I have not kept my square' mingled deprecating forgiveness with a hint of frank curiosity. Reds distinguished Antony's followers, blues, striping a basic white in various patterns, those of Caesar. Pompey's black was mixed with browns and greys for his men. Loose robes for the men combined dignity with grace and ease of movement. Antony's costumes reflected his movements from Egypt to Rome and from love to war by suggestive alteration rather than total transformation, the extremes being a striped 'dressing-gown' for act I and light leather armour with a Tartar helmet for the heroics of IV, iv-xiv.

Within the framework created by the design, interpretation took the form of a ceaseless search for exact meaning, in every scene and every speech.. The emphasis was personal; characters were conceived in terms of the pursuit of personal fulfilment. The production was remarkable for its generous acceptance of the humanity of every character in the play. Though increasingly clear-sighted about political realities, even Caesar was neither cynic nor ambitious plotter. His love of Antony, especially after their reconciliation, and of Octavia was patently sincere, if as patently immature. As played by Jonathan Pryce, he was a slightly gawky shy smiler (with no knife beneath the cloak). Gained authority reduced the gawkiness, but the naiveté remained in his overt and enthusiastic curiosity on encountering Cleopatra and in the prolonged backward look at her before his final departure from the stage at the end of the play.

The heroic fatalism described by Plutarch in his account of the last days of Antony and Cleopatra may or may not have been in Brook's mind, but gaiety, even in defeat, was the mood of the production. Balancing the warmth of Caesar were an Antony and Cleopatra whose delight in each other was none the less confident and happy for their awareness that it was also fatal. Resilience was another quality much in evidence. Enobarbus greeted the news of Fulvia's death with an explosion of incredulous laughter and Antony, so far worried and shamed ny the news, was surprised into honestly joining in. After defeat, each new blow, seeming at first to crush all hopes, only called forth new reserves of courage. Antony in defeat, 'valiant and dejected' by turns, ranted and swaggered through to a final recovery of dignity. Cleopatra, glazed into trance-like grief by the death of Antony, recovered to relish her defeat of Caesar's triumph with light-hearted and malicious ridicule and to accomodate a transition to and from a mood close to farce in her scene with Richard Griffiths's red-nosed, hieroglyphic comic-strip Clown. Joy had a more sombre tinge in Patrick Stewart's grey Enobarbus, a performance which had gained much in depth and sensitivity since he played the role in 1972. Risking a powerfully romantic response to the play, and especially to Cleopatra, Brook drew from the whole of his large cast performances of the clarity and conviction needed to safeguard such a response against sentimentalism. He had the good fortune to be able to cast powerful and experienced actors in many of the play's smallest parts. The search for inner conviction and for the full meaning of each scene was reflected in the force and significance of the speaking of lines throughout. Rehearsal activity aimed at breaking down theatrical cliché and actors' habits is among the most impressively fruitful of Brook's methods as a director. The text of Antony and Cleopatra can rarely, if ever, have been so fully and significantly played. The result was to be observed on (on the second night) in an audience deeply involved with that experience of renewal of the known play so frequently recorded by writers on Brook's productions of Shakespeare.

Press response to Antony and Cleopatra, though appreciative, was also slightly baffled and gave mild hints of disappointment. Certainly there was no immediate invitation to controversy in the production. Yet with this production Brook seems to have come closer than with the Dream, or perhaps even Lear, to an impartial but deeply committed presentation of the whole play to the senses, intelligence and imagination of his audience. No axe-grinding cuts, no baseless fabrics of subtextual subterfuge, no self-indulgent (or didactic) importation of the activities of the rehearsal-room onto the stage distracted from the play and its richness of meaning. Nor was the production in any sense untheatrical. Rarely can the banquet on Pompey's galley have effected so refined a flight from intoxication into the wilder realms of imagination. Not many directors have the sheer confidence which can turn the mere pulling of Antony across the stage looped in the long head-dresses of Cleopatra and her women into a more powerful image of the difficult hauling of the dying man up into the monument than any more literal staging could hope to emulate.

In 1978 Peter Brook returned to England with a production that confirms his great distinction as a director of Shakespeare. In retrospect, this Antony and Cleopatra may come to seem, as any production must, to have stressed some aspects of the play at the expense of others. His rejection of visual elaboration may have endangered the play's military and imperial themes, but it was a healthy reaction against surviving mid-Victorian assumptions about staging and costuming Shakespeare. His projection of the play in no way inhibited the imaginative response of the audience; and topical concerns of the late 1970s did not distort the production - rather they informed it and brought conviction to what was, in every sense, a major revival of the play.

As this account of Antony and Cleopatra draws on information derived from interviews generously given by the designer, Sally Jacobs, and by Patrick Stewart, who played Enobarbus, on the day after the second performance (11 October 1978), and as the interviews contain much more detail about aspects of the production mentioned above, it seems proper to conclude with a very slightly abbreviated text of them.

Interview with Sally Jacobs

Interview with Patrick Stewart

1. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1977).

From: Peter Brook and Shakespeare, Richard Proudfoot. Printed in Themes In Drama 2: Drama and Mimesis (C.U.P. 1980).

Playing Shakespeare/Antony and Cleopatra