Public figures in private: MUSC’s Antony & Cleopatra

In the lead up to the Melbourne University Shakespeare Company’s production of Antony & Cleopatra, Anthony Kuiper sat down with director Liam Bellman-Sharpe to discuss his adaptation of the play.

Why Antony & Cleopatra?

For a few reasons. It is a lesser known work but a well-known story. Everyone knows these characters and has associations with these characters. I think challenging people’s conceptions of what this play is – a story they know a little bit about but which has this whole other side to it.

It’s a really silly play! Some elements are frankly absurd. So it’s about the opportunity to mess with the audience a little bit.

How have you altered the play text? What does it reveal?

In the original text you see people’s influence over other people comes by them having lots of people around them – Antony himself has heaps of attendants.

There are 40 characters in the original text! Lots of characters are cut down and I think in a modern adaptation there are ways to suggest influence without scores of people being present. So things like television, current affairs programs, journalism, and this idea that people are being watched by people who aren’t present with them helps do away with some of the need for that. With that in mind, some characters are combined or done away with altogether to streamline the play. What Shakespeare was trying to get at in having all these people here can be gotten at in other ways in a modern adaptation.

You mention TV programs – will you show footage on the news like in MUSC’s 2014 production of Hamlet?

A little bit like Hamlet. In as much as our setting is non-specifically modern it’s very much pre-digital. One of the defining things of Hamlet was that it was digital and fantastic. This is a little less like that. In terms of interpreting the text I read some of the scenes and they felt like a talk show and so now there are scenes that are talk shows!

Is it reacting to or borrowing from previous productions?

I think a lot of productions have failed because they focus too much on the spectacle. It’s definitely informed by that. Also there are some ways in which the production – AV cues, music – will allude to people’s conception of these past productions. The Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton movie adaptation focused entirely on spectacle. It’s not at all engaging to watch. That isn’t what’s interesting. The story is about the people who are behind these enormous events.

So I think knowing that and not having to find that out for myself saved a lot of time. And I think a lot of people’s cultural iconography that they associate with the play comes from that period, and so a lot of the play is styled, in some way, after that period. So borrowing from other productions and the cultural associations within those productions.

What is your own take on celebrity?

Celebrities are people who have influence by virtue of being where other people want to be – they’ve “got it made.” Antony is an archetypal roman war hero, and I think in that sense where the public and private divide becomes interesting is where the characters start to use their influence for their own personal ends. Once another person’s conception of you becomes an integral part of yourself, you’re interacting in both public and private spheres. You draw it into yourself and it becomes a fundamental part of your character. You become this mix of public and private being.

How have you handled scene changes? It’s quite a long play.

In a theatrical sense we’ve tried to keep design elements reasonably simple.

So regarding the transitions little takes place. It’s unnecessary to have these fantastic scene changes. And again, I think a lot of the times the productions of this play have failed is because they focus too much on the spectacle of the play. It does concern grand moments but all the battles happen off stage, big processions happen off stage and you have it described to you. The play is a series of quite small, intimate moments, which is interesting when combined with these characters having public and private selves that interact.

How long will the production go for?

8 performances. Opens 30 April, closes 9 May. 2 and a half hours including interval. Guild Theatre, 1st floor of Union House.

What has this opportunity been like for you?

It’s been really fun. Honestly the hardest thing I’ve ever done but pretty rewarding. The design and management teams are all fantastic.

MUSC’s Antony & Cleopatra opens this Thursday 30 April in the Guild Theatre. You can book tickets here: http://www.trybooking.com/HJML

Image: Lola Giuffre

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