As we wade through slush and snow, doesn’t a jaunt to the beach sound nice? Not for William Shakespeare. In a version of Antony and Cleopatra that combines characters and displaces speeches, playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney trundles the tragedy to Hispaniola in the years before Toussaint Louverture’s revolt. The Egyptians become the enslaved Haitians, the Romans their French overlords.
Post-colonial interpretations of The Tempest have yielded provocative results and theater historians still champion Orson Welles’s “voodoo” Macbeth. But the most surprising thing about McCraney’s transposition, which began at the RSC and now appears at the Public, is how little it enlivens or illuminates the text.
Yes, the live musicians are a fine touch and the recasting of Enobarbus as a Baron Samedi figure briefly intrigues (mostly owing to Chukwudi Iwuji’s terrific performance), but the shift in setting serves to muddy the storytelling. Who’s battling whom? And where? And why? Even those who know the play well may want to consult the program synopsis.
The concept strands the British-American cast, including Jonathan Cake’s wavering Antony. (As for Joaquina Kalukango’s Cleo, well, her variety is less than infinite.) McCraney remains a sensitive and lyrical playwright, but will this thwart his directing career? You bet your asp.