Private investigations and public humiliation
It felt bizarre to be sponsored by a firm of private detectives. Somehow it also seemed apt that a performance that peered into the private lives of three of the most publicly known ancient figures, Octavius Caesar, Mark Antony and Queen Cleopatra, should be partly funded by hireable spies. A person associated with the production was a private detective and he had persuaded his bosses to invest in our tragedy. We were thrilled, they were generous. It was a shame that the show was so bad.
It is something of a cliché that you learn more from your failures than your successes. It is not entirely true. A great deal can be gleaned from the joys of popular acclaim, but the lessons learned from a public humiliation appear to penetrate more perniciously. It’s the pain, you know. The memory of the pain.
My first production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra in April 1988 came after a string of local triumphs. The two-year period prior this had seen our little company of performers stage nine successful shows including a highly popular Macbeth, a mini tour of an original Sherlock Holmes play, and a much-lauded Equus by Peter Shaffer. So successful had been the latter that we had decided to take it to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The Antony and Cleopatra production was partly intended as a fund-raiser for the Edinburgh adventure.
I take full responsibility. We had developed a very rapid means of production. All theatre relies on collective devotion that is unavoidably diluted by individual priorities. It matters little whether the show is prepared on a full-time, or a part-time basis, as this one was. In the latter case it is much harder to keep the momentum going but the remedy I had devised was to compress the total amount of rehearsal time. Rehearsals have an initial impetus driven by novelty and a final push powered by panic, but the mid-phase can be torturous and result in limited progress. One way to resolve the less-productive phase is to simply ditch it and stitch the initial novelty directly to the penultimate panic. It does mean, however, that tricky texts can’t always have the attention they might need.
Antony and Cleopatra has a particularly unwieldy structure. Acts three and four alone contain twenty-seven scenes. We made cuts, but even so a run of rapidly switching scenes takes time to get right, especially if the gaps make unfamiliar dialogue even less comprehensible. Efficiency became catastrophe. The scenes were not ready for public scrutiny. It didn’t need a private detective to reveal that, especially when we had two large audiences ready and waiting.
The speed of preparation also meant there was no time for experimentation. Our trademark innovation went overboard. “Tired of togas and playing it straight” proclaimed the review headline in the Lancashire Evening Post, in which we were also rightly lambasted for not lifting the dialogue out of the mind-wandering doldrums into which blank verse can so easily plunge contemporary listeners. The delivery was described as “wearisome” and we were criticised for betraying our “deserved reputation for daring to be different”.
The reviewer did praise Janet Hindmarsh in the title female role who “marvellously conveyed the lascivious sensuality of Antony’s lover”. There were other performers who also deserved praise. What they all deserved, however, was more discerning direction. A major fall-out with a lead actor was not what a struggling show most needed from the person at the helm. Personal disputes between director and actor are never desirable and I was much more sensitive of the warning signs of that kind of breakdown after that production.
Standing on the stage a couple of hours before the second performance and reading the review of the previous night’s show was a thirty-year low. I found myself nodding in agreement. The criticisms were entirely justified. I vowed to never again repeat the mistakes made with that production.
Correspondence from the public printed in the press reinforced the slamming, and once again I had to concede that they were right. We had failed to convey the majesty of the tragedy. We had betrayed the Bard. The text had received a mauling. Many performances were ‘wooden’ and needed more skilled assistance by a more astute director.
I felt crushed. In addition to an unforgivable failure to deliver to fee-paying audience, I had also mislead the cast. That must never happen again.
The immediate lesson learned was how to find the energy to empower a bruised company with just minutes to go before they had to step out on stage and repeat the performance for which they had been denigrated. The long-term lessons were even more valuable.
I did not revert to overlong rehearsal schedules but instead concentrated on more prior training on text delivery and more judicious cutting of the dialogue to allow physical creativity to flourish. I watched like a spy for the warning signs of a disruption to diplomacy.
Some five years later that particular ghost was laid to rest with a much more successful Antony and Cleopatra, and there were two or three further interpretations subsequent to that, all of which went well, but the wounds from the sufficing stokes for death inflicted after that first production in my salad days, when I was green in judgement never left me.
The 1988 production had other investors as well as the undercover spooks and while the show did not suffer financially, I felt something of a fraud. I had not delivered a quality product as promised. A couple of years ago I saw one of the individual backers across a railway platform and was instantly transported back to the painful production. I turned up my collar, slipped on the dark glasses and slinked away into the crowd.
The uneasybooks Drama Selection:
Drama: what it is and how to do it
The 2004 version of The Sherlock Holmes Solution is available as an eBook and also in paperback.
As is Making Myra: