In 2015, my senior class took a trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon. The rendition of “Antony and Cleopatra” we viewed was particularly notable for its modern take on a storyline set 2000 years ago. The plot follows Mark Antony who helplessly falls in love with Cleopatra. However, his devotion to her instead of his military responsibilities causes the collapse of the Egyptian dynasty and concurrent rise of the Roman Empire under Octavian, Julius Caesar’s adopted son.
In an interview, director Bill Rauch discusses the challenges of doing a Shakespeare play, recognizing that any adaptation must deal with 4 time periods simultaneously: the historical setting of the play itself, the era in which the play was written, the period in which the director sets the play, and the time in which the audience witnesses the play. Rauch elects to stage his appropriation in a contemporary period and consequently must balance tributes to the past with the present culture. Because he keeps the dialogue Shakespearean, Rauch uses fashionable costuming to denote modernity. The majority of clothing is Battle Dress Uniforms (BDUs) in olive green. For armor, costume designer David C. Woolard makes bullet-proof vests in the silhouette of Roman-style clothing. Likewise, Cleopatra’s outfits emulate the modern shape of dresses but are covered with elaborate drapery and gold to reflect true Egyptian wear. To finalize the period, Rauch includes modern guns, alongside swords, for weapons.
I found this play particularly interesting, because it pays homage to true “Romeo and Juliet” tragedy while also standing as an independent story. Additionally, Shakespeare marries an intimate love story with world politics but presents the result in a modern format relatable to people today. As director Rauch reflects: “at a time when our world is ever more global and tensions between east and west…are so rich and complex and disturbing, to look at Shakespeare’s rendition of events from 2000 years ago, written 400 years ago, through the lens of the 21st century and through the lens of the United States, is completely fascinating. It’s a sprawling, messy, gorgeous play.”
The link includes a trailer of the play as well as interviews with the director and costume designer.