Scott Lange writes about his characters in our production of Antony and Cleopatra.
As you (our regular readers) have most likely observed, our most recent production of Antony and Cleopatra employs quite a bit of doubling. In our eleven person cast, only two actors (the title characters) are undoubled in the show. I play three roles in this show: Enobarbus (Antony’s loyal friend), a servant that helps to carry a dying Antony to Cleopatra, and the clown who delivers a deadly snake to Cleopatra. I spend the majority of the play as Enobarbus, but it is my performance as the clown that has gotten the most comments.
The clown is only in one scene, doesn’t stick around for too long, and really does nothing to further the plot. There are a number of characters in Shakespeare’s plays that serve this same role. The jailer in Cymbeline, the apothecary in Romeo and Juliet, and the porter in Macbeth are a few of them. A few other Pigeon Creek actors and I have a running joke that they are actually all the same person at different points in his life.
In most cases, the character is there to provide a moment of levity before the play takes a swift plunge to death and tragedy. There are some productions that tend to perform these characters in a serious manner, as though comedy and laughter have no place in a Shakespearean tragedy. I believe, instead, that the moments of comedy help to intensify the drama in the play. The dichotomy of comedy and tragedy butted up the one against the other makes the play all the more moving for the audience. Sure, we as an audience enjoy nonsensical comedy or intense drama quite a bit. But often the most potent and popular types of entertainment contain both forms. It’s a theme that is consistent with real life. We go to funerals not only to mourn, but to share joyous moments from the life of our departed loved one. We laugh at slapstick, black comedies, and jokes that are “funny because they are true.” Anyway, I felt that despite the clown’s appearance was brief, it was an important one.
Truthfully, the character started out ridiculous. He had a stooped walk, and gravely voice, and was filled with sexual innuendo. I was playing him as old and crotchety, with only little respect for the queen. It got a lot of laughs from the cast, which I enjoyed, but didn’t exactly seem to fit. One day in rehearsal I decided to try something the complete opposite of what I had been doing. I stilled his movements, made him young, and afraid of the queen. This got a different reaction from the cast, but still wasn’t quite right. The right interpretation for me was, like my tragic-comedy ramblings earlier, somewhere in-between. It is supposed to be funny. But it should be because of the situation, not me being silly. He is nervous because he is delivering the queen’s chosen implement of death, a poisonous asp. He stumbles over his words, makes accidental jokes, and is generally awkward around a woman that he is helping commit suicide. I hope that people think he is funny, but that the humor in that moment deepens the audience’s compassion and care for Cleopatra. The brief moment of levity accents the tragedy of a relationship that can still move those that witness it.
Also, we’ve been referring to him as the “asp-clown.” Now that’s comedy!