Yesterday, I went to see Antony and Cleopatra at the Globe in London, the open-air theatre designed to recreate the Elizabethan/Jacobean original as close as possible. There's a pit, in which the poor stood, exposed to the elements. The stage has a partial roof, while those of us lacking solidarity with the poor sit on hard wooden benches under a thatched roof (cushions can be hired). The play – one I'd never seen before – is a story of Roman power politics and sexual obsession.
Yesterday, my final-year and first-year students played the part of the proletariat (some of them: not a single one of those who took the Shakespeare module bothered to come: clearly my teaching put them off Shakespeare for ever), or the 'rude mechanicals', standing under London's skies as the actors did their best…and worst. A shame it wasn't Lear, with its storm, because less than 500 metres away, this was happening:
Thunder rattled the building, lightning strafed the stage, the standing audience was drenched to the bone, and the actors carried on, though the lines about the weather attracted rueful laughter from audience and cast alike. Even worse, the man playing Mark Antony was ill and a stand-in had to be found at late notice. Haggard from staying up all night learning his lines, he performed with a copy of the (shortened) script in hand, and getting soggier by the minute. He performed valiantly – rather than just read as the others acted around him, he did his level best to put life into unfamiliar words.
Rather less professional was the actor playing Cleopatra. Having endured the worst of the weather and circumstances, she returned the audience's laughter by mugging to them even in the sombre scenes, turning tragedy to farce and, I thought, letting down her colleagues. For instance, near the end Mark Antony's near-lifeless body is pulled into her chamber: this time she played 'how heavy weighs my lord' for laughs as she tugged on the rope, giving in to the laughter occasioned by Mark dropping his script (he wasn't entirely innocent: he pointedly dropped it at the moment of his death). A good actor holds the audience in their hands, can turn humour to pathos and back again if s/he tries - Cleopatra gave up trying. It wasn't all her fault: as Mark's body was dragged sadly off stage, my attention was drawn to the pigeons at my eye-level having sex on the stage roof…
What a day: traffic accidents meant we turned up almost too late to get in, multiple colleagues had dropped out, and some gits tried to rob the coach driver while he waited for us – and yet we had a great day. All the disasters befalling the theatre and audience reminded us that live performance is a gamble: spectators are unpredictable, actors have artistic choices to make, the elements conspire against us, and yet we triumph.