Antony and Cleopatra began performances this week in the newly transformed Folger Theatre. Scenic designer Tony Cisek—who previously collaborated with director Robert Richmond to stage both 2014’s Richard III (also performed in-the-round) and last season’s critically acclaimed Timon of Athens among many other collaborations—spoke to The Folger Spotlight about his inspirations for Antony and Cleopatra‘s set and returning to an in-the-round configuration.
Antony and Cleopatra is a play full of contrasts, including two very distinct locations: Egypt and Rome. How did these contrasts inform your design choices?
Robert Richmond and I started talking about the tensions built into the play and that initially led us to thinking that we would explore staging it as a runway, where there are two opposite forces playing against each other. But, as we dug into it, it seemed like the relationships were actually more triangular—Antony, Cleopatra, and Caesar being the most obvious. We knew right away that we were not interested in the epic part when there was so much to mine in exploring the emotions, the psychology, the rationale, and the manipulations of those three main characters. We decided that a runway wasn’t a good use of the room, so we started thinking what if we got the audience even closer? What are the benefits there? Which made us look at staging it in-the-round. For the stage itself, we were thinking of the power struggle between Egypt and Rome. The triangle represents the Roman triumvirate, but, more importantly, the Antony-Cleopatra-Caesar three-way struggle. This triangular shape became interesting, and then we set that on this Roman shield, which is circular and would facilitate us revolving the environment.
And the pyramid above the stage?
Again, there are the triangles, but it also has the function of focusing the vertical energy back down into the space. Going back to Richard III [staged in-the-round at the Folger in 2014], I remember that there was an awful lot of empty air above the playing area. The sculpture above is an attempt to more clearly define the volume of the playing area, to contain the energy vertically and refocus it back down into the event.
What was the inspiration for the having the stage revolve?
When we first got to together to start talking about Antony and Cleopatra, we all had different opinions about who these characters were: Are the really in love? Are they just manipulating each other? Is it some combination of both? We all had a different opinion, and those opinions changed every five minutes. And that seemed like the right way to think about this play. If we’re seeing these relationships as continually changing, we wanted to get the audience to see it that way. Thinking about the configuration of the stage, we wanted to take these relationships and hold them up like a jewel in front of us and turn it around and examine the different facets. That’s when we really decided in-the-round for the configuration. But then we thought, what if we could also slowly revolve the world to enable to audience to see the same scene from different points of view as it was happening? That’s where the idea for a turn table came from.
How did you approach the battles in the play?
Well, the battles themselves aren’t actually even in the text. We don’t see them—they are reported after the fact, or watched from far away. What’s important is how the affect the viewer of the battle: how it’s affecting Antony when he learns that Cleopatra has turned her ships around and fled, for example. Robert has really re-envisioned the battles. For example, one of them is seen through the eyes of Enobarbus and it is a stylized sequence where all the participants in the battle are on stage and he is absorbing the violence of the event.
Besides the need for vertical energy, was there anything you learned from your experience with Richard III?
We learned some stuff about lighting, certainly, and that the room and the audience just doesn’t go away. They are really going to be quite present. The actors will be able to see most of the audience and the audience will be able to see each other. There is going to be awareness on the part of the audience that they are all witnessing this event together, which is a communal energy that doesn’t happen at a movie theater. The other thing we learned is there are a lot of great seats. We look forward to having the audience enjoy that again.
Thanks so much to Tony for speaking with us! Come see Folger Theatre’s Antony and Cleopatra, on stage now through November 19. For tickets and more information, visit us online or call the Folger Box Office at 202.544.7077.
Have questions of your own? Join us in the Folger Theatre on October 20 at 6pm and ask them in person at our Free Folger Friday: On Set with Tony Cisek.