John Shand, playwright, author, poet and notable theatre critic says of Antony and Cleopatra that it is “Shakespeare’s most opulent play in terms of both scale and language. Yet its challenging, operatic scope is also a graveyard for actors and directors.” What hope then for young Neka da Costa, director of this 2018 Season of the IEB schools set work for Grades 10, 11 and 12? What hope for her team of nine young thespians working with a mobile set and props in impromptu spaces? Well, every hope, actually. The production is stunning.
For a start Da Costa and her team have cut the work (and ten years action) from three hours to seventy five minutes – and done it seamlessly, so that one doesn’t notice what has been left out. The production focuses on the erotic love relationship between two passionate individuals, the soldier/politician, Mark Antony (Ben Kgosimore), and the woman who captures his interest and heart, the beautiful and exotic Queen of the Nile, Cleopatra (Sanelisiwe Yekani).
Set in the era of the second Roman triumvirate, (after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44BC – another of Shakespeare’s plays), Mark Antony is one of triumvirs, together with Octavius Caesar (Cassius Davids) and Lepidus (Kevin Koopman). Mark Antony heads off east to Egypt where he dallies, neglecting Rome and his wife, first Fulvia then Octavia (Megan van Wyk). Besotted with the jealous, vain and hysterically wilful Cleopatra (yes, Sanelisiwe Yekani gets to play an incredibly complex character and her performance dominates the action) he allows his brilliance as a military strategist to be subverted and he finds himself betrayed in politics and unsuccessful in war. The unhappy pair, like the other great Shakespearean lovers, Romeo and Juliet, both commit suicide.
The main characters include Sextus Pompey, a rebel against the triumvirate and the son of the late Pompey played by Carlos Williams. Only the title characters escape having to enact more than one character. Sibusiso Mkhize plays Enobarbus, one of Mark Antony’s party. Megan van Wyk doubles as Iras, one of Cleopatra’s servants. Campbell Meas plays the role of Charmian, another of Cleopatra’s servants and then some small parts. Both the articulation and projection of the voices is perfect. The cast clearly adapt this to suit the size and acoustics of their venue.
The costuming and set is by Sarah Roberts and is cleverly minimalistic. I saw her costumes for last year’s production of Coriolanus and this year follows suit. Lighting for the theatre production is by Jane Gosnell. Usually the actors have to work without this luxury, much as the first actors of the play (circa 1607) would have had to do.
Antony and Cleopatra’s pace and energy never flags for a minute and it is visually splendid, reaching its pinnacle in the sea battle which Mark Antony loses. The Shakespearean language is maintained throughout. The production is presently travelling to schools nationwide and continues until the end of May 2018. The presentation is directed towards enhancing knowledge of students studying the set work for their matric examination, but it feels like entertainment (Shakespeare is meant to be performed, not read). At the conclusion of every show students are invited to participate in a Q and A.
I wonder if the questions that are asked include pointed questions/comments about the present political leaders, either of those close to home, or those on the world stage and the dangers of provoking the wrath of opponents who have unbridled authority. While this is one of Shakespeare’s tragedies (the historical elements having been tampered with for dramatic reasons), it has the immediacy of today’s news. Da Costa and her team have lost none of the impact of the work’s relevance in society through every age.
Shakespeare fans in the public can see this production at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown on 20 and 21 April, 2018 at 14:30.
When: February to May 2018. Performance schedule now available for schools
Where: IEB schools across South Africa and Swaziland. Cost: R100 per learner
Time: Approximately 75 minutes, followed by Q/A session of 30 minutes
Produced by National Children’s Theatre and Renos Nicos Spanoudes
For enquiries and bookings: Phone 011 484 1584 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org / email@example.com