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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: July ::
Re: Ant. & Cleo.; Branagh
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0568.  Thursday, 20 July 1995.
 
(1)     From:   David Jackson <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 19 Jul 95 09:45:29 est
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0559  Re: Branagh; Films
 
(2)     From:   JC Stirm <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 19 Jul 95 11:30 PDT
        Subj:   A&C casting
 
(3)     From:   Brian Corrigan <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 19 Jul 95 16:54:22 EST
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0559  Re: Branagh; Films
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Jackson <
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Date:           Wednesday, 19 Jul 95 09:45:29 est
Subject: 6.0559  Re: Branagh; Films
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0559  Re: Branagh; Films
 
Re: A&C ages.
 
As I remember (Adam?), Antony was born in the low 80s BC, and Cleopatra was
born in 69 BC. They both died in 30 BC. So he was in his early 50s and she
pushing 40.
 
Re: Branagh/MAAN.
 
I know this has been almost beaten to death (I hope this will finish it off),
so I will try to be brief. Looked at in its own right, independent of whether
it brings the bard to the masses or whatever, the film struck me as a curious
hodgepodge of styles, some of which worked and other which didn't. The scenes
between Branagh and Thompson I found highly effective and engaging, but as soon
as anyone else came into the picture the impact was diffused. I think very
highly of Richard Briers, but he did seem to be a walking laughtrack (I agree
with the comment about "telling" us that its supposed to be funny by having
everyone laugh even at stuff that isn't very funny). Keaton and Elton (read his
novels, by the way) were incomprehensible, and thus could have been saying
anything (this is a very tired and overused method of trying to inject humor
into Shakespeare "comic" lines whose archaic lines may have had them rolling in
the aisles of the Globe, but just don't mean anything now; I've done it before
myself, but I always feel fraudulent when I say one of those unfunny lines
while rolling my eyes or mugging or falling down or whatever, knowing that the
laugh has nothing to do with what's being said). Finally, I thought the
direction was dull; after the interesting and amusing "magnificent seven"
beginning, the camera work tended to be either two- or three- shots a la TV,
and the group scenes seemed to have everyone standing in a line, bunched
together as close as possible to fit onto a flat 25" screen. Keanu was as good
as any of the others. I only saw it once, however (in a cinema), so these are
the impressions I was left with.  I haven't seen Henry V (were there four
previous movies, like the Rocky series?) or "Peter's Friends" or "Mary
Shelley's Frankenstein" (as opposed to George Eliot's?), but I did see "Dead
Again", which is how the direction and writing left each scene. By the way, my
favorite Emma Thompson film is "The Tall Guy", which IS a modern classic.
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           JC Stirm <
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Date:           Wednesday, 19 Jul 95 11:30 PDT
Subject:        A&C casting
 
Stephanie Hughes;
 
First of all, thanks for your response to my posting about casting Cleopatra.
You comment (I've cut the opening part about age):
 
As for Emma playing Cleopatra, I should think a black wig would do, purely to
conform with tradition.  Unless there's been some recent research that I've
missed, Cleopatra was the last of the Ptolemies, first put in power by
Alexander the Great, Macedonians originally, and therefor, white. And even if
she hadn't been white historically, if Denzel Washington can play a sixteenth
century Italian prince, why not a white actor a black role?
 
Good question.  I'll try to keep my response short, and expect others to hop in
with amplifications etc.
 
Let's start with where we seem to agree: race blind casting (Denzel Washington
as Prince of Aragon, for example) is a positive choice; it feeds our ideals
that people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds can function in every
role in a modern society.  It also opens up casting.
 
But there are plays where race blind casting doesn't seem to work.  I think
*A&C* is one of those plays; so is *Othello*. Since the arguments for casting
Othello as a black man are more familiar, let me start there.  Race and Racism
are important elements in *Othello*; the stream of racist comments from Iago,
the Duke and others give an indication of the level of racism in the playworld.
 It's no accident that the play starts in Venice, one of the places early
modern English folk generally thought of as a point of contact with people of
non-European origins.
 
Imagine a well-intentioned production which casts Othello as a white man; they
mean well, but they make it very difficult for the audience to see the ways
that Iago and company work to construct Othello through speech, and the ways
that Othello works to construct himself within and against the confines of
their words.  A lot of what Othello says in the early scenes attempts to make
him fit into Venetian society.  But when Othello kills himself saying, "I took
by th'throat the circumcised dog / And smote him thus" (5.2.351-2 in the New
Cambridge edn), he's putting himself in the position of "a malignant and a
turbaned Turk" (349), he's recognizing that he's not in.  The country club has
a race barrier, so to speak.  But our white actor would have a difficult time
making an audience see that (especially in a U.S. where so many are now
claiming that there's no need for affirmative action).
 
Now to *A&C*: first, whatever Cleopatra's historical color, the play sees her
as dark.  She says that she is "with Pheobus' amorous pinches black" (1.5.29 in
the New Cambridge edn), and has a "tawny front" (if I recall correctly).  (I've
seen lots of early modern European pictoral representations of Cleo' and she's
usually VERY white, so I think the play is making a point of her darkness.)
 
A lot of the language about Cleopatra and Egypt shows both as feminine,
super-sexual and undisciplined, and sounds very much like that post-colonial
theorists find in colonialist literature about colonized peoples.  In fact, the
play represents Rome as a kind of proto-colonial power and engages in a process
of working out ways of dealing with contact between European and non- European
peoples.  Race, sex, gender and class are all important elements in the play's
construction of Egyptian/Roman relations. Sure, an early modern company would
have had a white male actor play Cleo' in drag with dark make-up (the play
draws attention to these practices).  We could do the same (Macauley Caulkin as
Cleo' anyone?), but I think the modern audience would find that distracting,
and, no doubt, offensive.  I think the play would work better if the actor were
able to make us aware that race, too, is an element in the play.  And I don't
think a white actor can do that at this point.
 
I've gone on longer than I intended; yet I'm sure I've left gaping holes.
Thanks again for your response Stephanie!
 
Best, Jan Stirm

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(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Brian Corrigan <
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Date:           Wednesday, 19 Jul 95 16:54:22 EST
Subject: 6.0559  Re: Branagh; Films
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0559  Re: Branagh; Films
 
I question the sources consulted in regards to Cleopatra's age and race. As
Cleopatra VII was born in 69 B.C. and died in or around 31 B.C., she would have
been much closer to 38 or 39 years of age when she died rather than "60ish"--I
do, however, concur that casting "a woman of colour" would be an unusual manner
to portray the last of the Ptolemy line---a Macedonian (Northern Greek) dynasty
ruling a conquered people under colour of Alexander's original regime.  My
reference here is Peter Green's _Alexander to Actium_ published by the
University of California Press.
 
Brian Corrigan
North Georgia College
 

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