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Reviewed by:
  • Cleopatra
  • Sonja Kleij
CleopatraPresented by ZEP theaterproducties and AYA danstheater at Stadsschouwburg Utrecht. 09 27- 12 13, 2019. Choreographed and directed by Wies Bloemen and Peter Pluymaekers. Translated in rhyme by Brainpower. Adaptation by Peter Pluymaekers. Set and lighting by Erik van Raalte. Costumes by Isis Vaandrager. With Arend Brandligt (Antony), Melisa Diktas (Charmian/Ensemble), Michael de Haan (Enobarbus/Ensemble), Samir Hassan (Octavius/Mardian), Sterre Konijn (live music), Anne-May de Lijser (Octavia/Chorus/Ensemble), Isabelle Nelson (Iras/Ensemble), and Mehrnoush Rahmani (Cleopatra).

When the lights went on in Stadsschouwburg Utrecht, the audience was presented with a long, thin, metal bridge-like construction, a circle of light, and three female dancers embodying the push and pull of waves through their movement. One of the dancers started to introduce the audience to the story of Cleopatra, the great Queen of Egypt who represents female strength and power. As Cleopatra herself appeared on the metal construction, it became clear that in this scene she sailed on the Nile, the river represented by the dancers. This opening immediately set the tone for this play: a physical and feminist retelling of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.

Gender equality was the central theme in this production, which was brought about through the plot, the additional speeches, and the dancing. The plot stayed close to Shakespeare's original text. As education appeared to be one of the play's main functions (over half of the performances were intended for schools), it was understandable that the company retained the core narrative in deference to its target audience of high-school students. But, as the title Cleopatraalready signaled, the focus here was on the female protagonist. Cleopatra was no longer portrayed as the foreign, Orientalized woman whose seduction causes Antony's downfall. Instead, she was the Queen of a mighty nation, which was invaded by Rome as a consequence of Antony's incompetence, pride, and misogyny. In placing greater emphasis on the gendered treatment of Cleopatra, the focus seemed to shift away a little from race. For example, here they spoke of " haar hand" ("her hand") not "her white hand." But as in the original play, Cleopatra was inseparably linked to her country, referred to by others as "Egypt." The difference is that in this case the comparison was made more positively, her method of reigning being portrayed as praiseworthy and successful. The cast was also diverse. While Antony [End Page 267]was white (passing), both Cleopatra and Octavius were played by actors of color, thus making the violent confrontations less about racial difference and more about men infiltrating a female space. Making the men in the Queen's life the reason for the tragic ending further neutralized the threat of Cleopatra's sexuality that is present in the original play. Instead, her sexuality was portrayed as normal and natural. While the speech was somewhat cis-normative, the way the female narrator spoke about vaginas and the experience of having a female body further emphasized how these experiences are natural and beautiful, and how they can be powerful.

Of course, performing Shakespeare in a different language comes with challenges, opportunities, and above all choices. For this production, several people were involved in the writing. Brainpower, a well-known Dutch rapper, was credited with the translation, Peter Pluymaekers with the adaptation, and Anne-May de Lijser with the new texts of the Chorus, most of which she also performed. The majority of the text took the form of rhymed spoken word poetry, which had the effect of emulating Shakespeare's rhyming language, but with a more modern touch. Nevertheless, to me the language seemed a little clumsy at times. The rhyming sometimes felt forced and the rhythm was not always followed.

On the other hand, the newly added speeches worked very well. The female narrator took a similar role to the Chorus in Henry Vby addressing the audience directly and providing commentary. These speeches broke with the rhyme scheme and usual rhythm of the play, which drew further attention to her being not a participant but rather a commentator on the action. The Chorus's main function was to redirect the focus to Cleopatra...


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