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Tragedie of Cleopatra Play Outperforms!
18 March 2013
Professor Helen Hackett, English Department and Centre for Early Modern Exchanges report on Samuel Daniel’s The Tragedie of Cleopatra.
Some twelve years before Shakespeare wrote Antony and Cleopatra, Samuel Daniel composed The Tragedie of Cleopatra (1594). Daniel’s play concentrates on the final hours of Cleopatra’s life, after the death of Antony and her defeat by the Roman leader Octavius Caesar, as she decides to kill herself rather than be led in triumph through Rome as a humiliated captive. Like Shakespeare, Daniel draws contrasts between the voluptuousness of Cleopatra and the rigid militarism of Octavius, but Daniel’s Cleopatra is also characterised by lofty rhetoric, pathos, and maternal tenderness, offering an intriguingly different take on the Egyptian queen.
The idea of staging Daniel’s Cleopatra arose from the research of English PhD student Yasmin Arshad, who has discovered a portrait of a Jacobean lady in costume as Cleopatra which is inscribed with lines from Daniel’s play. Cleopatra forms part of a genre of English Renaissance plays – highly rhetorical, moralistic, and influenced by the Roman tragedian Seneca – that have been classified as ‘closet dramas’. Until recently it was thought that such plays were written to be read aloud by private circles of family and friends in aristocratic houses, but recent scholarship has suggested that they may have been fully staged, and the Cleopatra portrait potentially offers exciting confirmation of this. We were eager to explore the performability of the play, and were ably assisted in this by our gifted director Emma Whipday (also a PhD student in English) and a cast and production team of extraordinary talents. In particular, we were extremely fortunate to have as our Cleopatra Charlotte Gallagher, an alumna of UCL’s English BA and MA programmes who is now a professional actor, and who amazed and impressed us by learning the long and difficult role of Cleopatra while also understudying in The Judas Kiss in the West End.
After many long months of intensive rehearsals and workshops the final performance, on 3rd March 2013 in the Great Hall of Goodenough College, was a thrilling success. The wood-panelled space, grand yet intimate, perfectly evoked the great hall of a Jacobean country house, exactly the kind of space where the play would originally have been performed. Charlotte was, in the word of one spectator, ‘mesmerising’: by turns serenely regal, incandescent with rage, or poignant in her grief. All the performances were excellent, with especially compelling staging of the Choruses, a feature not present in Shakespeare which exemplifies Daniel’s incorporation of classical and continental influences. The Chorus members moved around each other in a carefully choreographed and almost ritualistic fashion while their speeches intertwined, drawing out from the action meditations on fate and destiny. Special mention must go to the musical director, Simon Smith, and the lutenist, Sam Brown, who enhanced the performance with plangent Renaissance compositions, including some by Samuel Daniel’s own brother, John Daniel.
We are satisfied that we have proved the performability of Daniel’s play, and we are pleased to have introduced the audience of 250 to a genre of Renaissance drama quite different from the Shakespeare plays with which we are all so familiar: more classical, more European (Daniel’s play was a sequel to a translation of the Cleopatra story from French), and offering roles for women in private aristocratic settings (unlike Shakespearean playhouse drama, where of course all women were played by boys). We enjoyed sharing our project with Year 12 students of the UCL Academy at a drama workshop; and we are in talks with the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford, Shakespeare’s Globe, and Knole House in Kent about possible further performances.
A DVD of the performance on 3rd March will be available shortly; for details please see http://thetragedieofcleopatra.wordpress.com/.
We warmly thank the UCL European Institute for funding and support.