Prior to my review of the Folger’s production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, I spoke with director Robert Richmond and set designer Tony Cisek about the dramatic transformation of the theatre space, and with Cleopatra herself, Shirine Babb, about what this intimate relationship with the audience means for her performance.
Robert Richmond has been directing at the Folger since 2010. He is the Chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of South Carolina, Artistic Director of Theatre South Carolina, and has directed for regional theatres across the country, including several off-Broadway productions with Aquila Theatre.
My standard first question to a director, or at least it will be once I’ve written a few more of these: Why This Play, Why Now?
This play is very relevant and accessible for a DC audience in that it demonstrates that world politics, and all the attendant skullduggery and machinations haven’t changed since the days of ancient Rome. There’s a lack of understanding between Eastern and Western cultures, and overarching themes of passion and hedonistic pleasure versus duty and order.
We first meet Mark Antony when he ascends to power in Julius Caesar, in the wake of Caesar’s assassination. Even though these plays were written several years apart (Julius Caesar around 1599, Antony and Cleopatra around 1607), do you see this play as a sequel?
Well, I do and I don’t. The recurring characters are further along in their careers than in Julius Caesar. Octavius does take power as dictator, which was what Caesar had wanted, and Antony is toward the end of the trajectory. Then again, there is a contemplative, backwards-looking aspect to the story, for example when Antony faces his fate:
The miserable change now at my end
Lament nor sorrow at, but please your thoughts
In feeding them with those my former fortunes,
Wherein I lived the greatest prince o’ th’ world
(Act IV, Sc 15)
I hear an echo of Shakespeare himself, nearing the end of his career, reflecting on his own mortality.
When did the idea of performing the play in the round come about?
I’ve been collaborating with Tony Cisek since 2010, and we tend to use the same creative team (lighting designer Andrew Griffin and costume designer Mariah Hale). We agreed that we needed to move away from the traditional staging and the idea that it’s a “Roman” play, an orated play, and base it more on the personal relationships, the personal drama.
We were interested in the idea of vection, the illusion of movement, like when you’re on a train in the station, and the train next to you starts moving and at first you think you’re moving. We were drawn to the idea of how the title characters’ lives are increasingly spiraling out of control. Out of all this discussion came the idea of staging it in the round, and building a revolving playing space.
I believe there’s something in this play for everybody, the energy is contagious, vicariously living through the ups and downs of Antony and Cleopatra’s relationship.
Set Designer Tony Cisek has worked in regional theatre all over the country, but has been based in DC for nearly 25 years, where he’s worked with Arena Stage, Constellation Theatre, Round House, Ford’s Theatre, and of course the Folger, where he’s worked for twenty years.
Even if they haven’t seen the play, the audience has an idea of who these characters are. As soon as they walk into the room and see the transformed theatre space, they’ll know that this experience will be different.
You and Robert have done this arena-style staging at the Folger before.
Yes, we talked Robert into doing Richard III this way (in 2014)
You’ve also got a consistent design team
Indeed, Robert, Andrew Griffin (lighting design), Mariah Hale (costume design) and I have done five shows together, although the sound designer Adam Stamper is new.
Was it hard to convince the Folger to greenlight this?
I’m grateful that the theatre had the courage to allow us to take out all of their seating and re-build the stage, since it comes at a significant cost above and beyond our scenery budget. It’s definitely a good sign of their faith and trust in our team.
Shirine Babb is a New York City native and is based there, though she’s lived and worked all over the country, recently with Long Wharf Theatre and Actors Theatre of Louisville, and holds degrees from East 15 in England and San Diego’s Old Globe. She very kindly took time off her lunch break during dress rehearsals to spend a few minutes chatting with me.
Have you worked with Robert Richmond before?
Once; I was Portia in his Julius Caesar (2014), and the year before I was going to be in his Twelfth Night but a conflict came up.
I hear you’re off to Broadway soon!
Yes, I can announce that I’ll be starting rehearsals in December for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but I cannot reveal what role at this time!
Is this your debut?
No, four years ago I was in the ensemble of Macbeth starring Ethan Hawke, and was standby for Lady Macbeth.
I understand this is not your first time playing Cleopatra.
Yes, this is my third time around!
How is this production different in terms of your approach to the role, and what took you by surprise this time?
The first time I was young and didn’t have much life experience. The second time was a large outdoor production where I’d play for three to five thousand people a night. This time around, the intimacy of the staging allows me to be present with Antony and the cast, and allows the words to have more of a place in the room. I can be more human and relatable with such intimacy between the audience and actors, and it gives more sensual quality, more of a lustful presence that I’m not used to, so adjusting to that is a lot of fun.
What do you find inspiring and challenging about playing such an iconic historical figure?
The challenging part is how to deal with her many layers, and since it’s one of his later plays, the dialogue can be dense, with many thoughts layered into every line. Trying to find not only the truth and meaning, but how to convey it to the audience, with her complexity and following her line of thought and her arc over her journey can be very challenging. It asks an actress to be as present as possible. The beauty and challenge is that she’s not only one thing; the trap is only playing her as a seducer or a sensual woman, and the challenge is to find her many facets and make her as fully rounded as possible.
Antony and Cleopatra
closes November 19, 2017
Details and tickets
Same question I asked Robert: Why this play, why now?
When this play is normally done, the focus is more on politics and how this man Antony is being asked to do certain things for the love of his country — not that he’s reluctant, but he’s being side-tracked by this woman — but we’re focusing so much more upon the love between them and the fighting for it.
Why now. When we’re asked to do something for our country or our people, we assume that the choices that we’re making benefit only us, and we overlook the impact on the people around us, on society, and the world.
The play’s about the choice between heart and country, and the resulting fallout.