{Thu 22 November 2007}   Points of light in a grey, wet winter
I love rain, but I don’t like grey. Heavy, exciting rain that contrasts with plenty of warm sunshine, that’s good. Rain that just witters around forever, greeting me with wimpish wetness every time I open the curtains in the morning, that’s bad. Real bad. Just what is the point of opening those curtains, if it’s not going to change the quality of light in the room? In this season, I look towards the coming months in the UK with a kind of muted horror, feeling already how hard it is to motivate myself to dress in anything other than an all-enveloping cushion of warm frumpiness, or to go out to the mailbox, much less to the gym.

But then, there’s Shakespeare, and poetry.

The weekend before last, we held a reading of Antony and Cleopatra. It was a fantastic evening, with twelve readers gamely taking on the 56 or so roles between them. Before we launched in, we had the privilege of an introduction to the political context of the Roman world of the Mediterranean by a group member keenly interested in Roman history. This brief survey of the times added great interest, helping us to understand the characters’ motivations and the enormous personal and political stakes for which they played, as well as clarifying that Shakespeare had squashed actual events that spanned several years into what appears a much shorter period in the play.

Our Cleopatra was passionate, petulant and powerful right to the end, and Antony’s gorgeous voice keenly reflected the conflict between his own passions for love and for honour, and between his rationalizing and his rational mind as he yearned both to lose himself in Egypt and to lead again in the Roman Empire. Octavius Caesar came across as intelligent and dangerously calculating under a veneer of courtesy and honour. Cleopatra’s maidservants, Iras and Charmian, were suitably langorous and lighthearted (at least at first), to convey Egypt’s exotic sensuality and hedonism as opposed to the militant, ambitious demands of Rome.

It’s a long and very complex play, with a vast number of scenes, some only a few lines long, taking place in Egypt, in Rome, in Sicily, in Athens, on the battlefield, etc. Messengers are of great importance in a scenario as vast as this to carry the story from scene to scene and to assist the audience with the understanding of the transitions. Our Messenger (we had one person reading all of them) bravely dusted himself off after the various rejections and beatings which seemed to be his unfortunate lot as he brought unwelcome news again and again!

Of course, it’s easier to relate to this number of scene changes when one sees them on stage, as visual and musical settings help to orient one. I’ve never been so grateful for the clear and confident reading of Stage Directions! It seems strange to beginning readers that we should “waste talent” on reading Stage Directions out loud, but we have found that this contributes enormously to the framing of each scene and to the rhythm of the reading. The person reading the humble Stage Directions with clarity and confidence subtly facilitates and “contains” the reading for the others. It’s so effective that I now try to allocate one reader to Stage Directions for each Act, with that reader reading no or very few other parts during that Act if possible. In fact, I would have a single person read all the Stage Directions for the entire play if I weren’t afraid there’d be a mutiny, because of course we all want to feel the motivations and speak the poetry of at least one character as well!

To do something a bit different and slightly lighter over the festive season, we’ve decided to hold a poetry evening next. In the spirit of inclusion, as so many different cultures are represented in our group, we’ll each read a poem that is connected in some way to an aspect of our heritage, and then direct some or all of the others in the group in a re-reading of it (besides being a lot of fun, this is a way to absorb the meaning and atmosphere of a poem that is at first strange to one — it’s very seldom that one truly “gets” a poem on first reading. Well, I think the best poems keep on giving one new stuff every time one goes back to them, of course!) The date has yet to be decided, but I hope there’ll be a write-up of a happy poetic evening soon!

And still on points of light… see my next post for a light poem about light that I wrote last weekend at a writer’s workshop in Geneva.

et cetera