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Antony and Cleopatra

Production Notes for the April 28, 1953 staging of Antony and Cleopatra
by William Shakespeare, 1564-1616

Produced at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (Stratford-upon-Avon, England)
Directed by Glen Byam Shaw
Sets and costumes by Margaret Harris

Accompanying Documents on the Production


THE SCOTSMAN (30 April 1953) described Motley's achievement: "The play is not hampered by unnecessary decor. Both scenery and costumes have been designed by Motley, and yet in the strict sense there is no set scenery. The stage, save for a couple of slender pillars, is as bare as possible. Almost all the rest is 'props.' A simple sail let down from above, with the addition of some sparse ship's furniture, suffices for Pompey's galley. One set for Cleopatra's monument is a simple piece of arched masonry with gigantic Egyptian figures. . . . . But during most of these tense three hours the stage is bare except for a flight of shallow steps, and sometimes a simple figure or two figures at parley are sharply etched against the sky."

Richard Findlater wrote in the LONDON TRIBUNE (20 November 1953) at the end of the London run, "A theatrical Everest, . . . . the supreme virtue of this production, indeed, is that Shakespeare is its hero."

Commentary by Michael Mullin

A resounding success in the 1953 season, "Antony and Cleopatra" immediately followed Richard III starring Michael Redgrave and Peggy Ashcroft, it opened to acclaim in Stratford and went on to tour the Continent, finally returning to London for a run. The production is notable because the full production records and nearly complete Motley designs allow one to examine it in some detail.

The challenge for Glen Byam Shaw and Motley with "Antony" was to present Shakespeare's play as Shakespeare, not as a star vehicle or a box-office oddity--for the Olivier's work together had by now been tainted by gossip that their marriage was faltering badly. At Stratford the play took on a much different coloration. Although a few critics thought Peggy Ashcroft slightly miscast [...] they were extravagant in their praise of the production.

In no small way, Margaret Harris's sets and costumes were responsible. Michael Billington, who saw the production as a schoolboy, remembered that they made the "transition from Rome to Alexandria with cinematic speed and simple lighting-changes. A rope looped with canvas indicated Pompey's galley. Two purple poles suggested Octavia's court. Stratford's hydraulic lift enabled the central area of the stage to rise and become Cleopatra's monument."

Margaret Harris took as her inspiration the classical Roman stage--spare, with as little scenery as possible. She built up the stage--easy to do at Stratford by raising the stage lifts and building around them. There were four steps down to the forestage, which was semicircular. Two large columns rose on either side, leaving two-thirds of the stage as the center. A rostrum stood across the back of the stage.

The scenes in Egypt were localized without additional scenery by bringing on slaves carrying objects--often Cleopatra herself sitting or lying down on a litter. At other times, she stormed on. To shift the scene to Rome, the designer changed the color scheme completely--the costumes, the props and set pieces, and the sky (the cyclorama backstage on which colored light was projected).

Comments of Margaret Harris

"For the first scene in Rome, they flew in a big Roman eagle carrying a bar, which held a curtain- -not soft, but treated with plaster, so that it looked sculptured," Margaret Harris said. "Three thrones for the triumvirs were set center, far downstage. The scene changed to Egypt when the Roman eagle went up again into the flies, the color of the sky changed, and Cleopatra entered on a litter. The Egyptians were all dressed in white, and very brilliant pieces of color. Cleopatra was always dressed in a very strong color. The Romans' costumes were all gray and silver. For the second Roman scene, a big screen made of metal with a map etched on it allowed the Romans to plan their campaign."

"The drapes were up in the flies, and were lowered down," explained Margaret Harris. "We had attached a line that held up the center of the drape, so that as it lowered, an entrance was opened in the middle by the swag the line made. For the 'Great Fairy' scene, Cleopatra dressed herself up in very light things, with a great feather headdress. It was dark, and she came down the steps, with all the slaves carrying little lights, quite small, so that the entire scene was speckled with lights. Antony was waiting for her on the stage."

After the tour, the production came to the Shaftsbury Theatre, London, which lacked a lift. Margaret Harris improvised with a scene truck, but, as she said, "The effect was spoiled. Indeed, for the whole tour, those effects didn't work, because we couldn't have the [Stratford] lift."

The preceding text was taken from Michael Mullin, DESIGN BY MOTLEY (Newark, Delaware; University of Delaware Press, 1995).
Copyright 1995, Michael Mullin.
Reproduced by permission of the author.

Cast List

Michael Redgrave (Antony), Peggy Ashcroft (Cleopatra), Marius Goring (Octavius), Harry Andrews (Enobarbus).


THEATRICAL (SELECTIVE) REALISM - created through the selective use of primary research material and careful arrangement of specific elements of a period (line, shape, color, and historic detail) so as to create the essence and impression of a period unencumbered by the minutia of extraneous details for dramatic purposes and theatrical effect. This particular set of designs incorporates the use of some garment forms and styles not prevalent at the time and place in which the play is set. Specifically, the use of trousers and long sleeved shirts on some of the Roman characters is somewhat of a creative license on the part of the designers. Although these garments were extant in 35 BCE, they were not particularly evident in Roman fashion.


Egyptian and Imperial Roman Influence - c. 35-30 BCE.