When Peter Goessner’s wife got a contract to teach at a university in the city of Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture, and they came to Japan with their 3-year-old daughter in 1993, the Leipzig, East German-born director and actor thought it would just be “a short-term life experience,” he told The Japan Times in a 2009 interview.
Three years later, though, Goessner’s newly formed Uzume (Goddess of the Sea) theater company debuted there with Yukio Mishima’s “My Friend Hitler.” And now, after building a solid reputation in Kyushu before moving to Tokyo in 2007, Goessner is directing his first-ever work by Shakespeare — the grand and tragic “Antony and Cleopatra,” which runs till Oct. 30 at Theater X in Tokyo.
When we met again recently, and I asked why he’d chosen that famously complex work to mark his company’s 20th anniversary, the now 54-year-old dramatist explains, “I’ve always been especially interested in ‘Antony and Cleopatra,’ and I’ve always wondered why there were so few reputable productions of it worldwide (and hardly any in Japan) compared to other Shakespeare tragedies such as ‘King Lear’ and ‘Hamlet’ — so I wanted to take up the challenge.”
Though it revolves around the doomed, historically based romance between a besotted Roman military hero and the beguiling Queen of Egypt about whom he famously declares “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale,” Goessner suggests the play’s nonstandard structure may explain its scarcity of stagings.
For example, he says there were “too many scenes,” and they also switch rapidly around between Egypt, Rome, Syria, Sicily, Athens and elsewhere. In addition, he points out that because the play’s action spans almost 10 years, it’s difficult to keep it moving along without becoming sluggish.
“The most important thing is to maintain its continuity of development,” he says. “Shakespeare actually wrote this play so it flowed through 42 scenes, and in directing it I referred to Robert Altman’s 1993 movie ‘Short Cuts,’ which brilliantly depicts 22 characters’ human relationships using very quick and clever scene changes.
“So, to switch the scenes instantly in ‘Antony and Cleopatra,’ I’m using string curtains as the main elements of the set.”
Goessner also highlights another nonstandard element of this play, saying, “Shakespeare wrote ‘King Lear’ around the same time (1605-06), and that is a well-made tragedy while this isn’t.
“I suppose by the time he got to ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ he’d had enough of writing formula tragedies in which characters like Hamlet, Othello and King Lear had their problems inside their minds and the plays are questing for the universal in human nature.
“So I think he was experimenting by presenting the reasons for the tragedy in extrinsic factors such as the social and historical background and the fluctuating world in which we live, where people are often toyed with by time.
“Furthermore, though Antony loses his standing in Rome completely through being so madly in love, I believe we can’t simply say that Octavius Caesar (his former friend turned mortal enemy) was a winner because, as Cleopatra declares: ‘Tis paltry to be Caesar: Not being Fortune, he’s but Fortune’s knave.’
“That is the key line of this play, I believe.”
Then, seemingly casting back to his own “short-term life experience” that has clearly taken on a life of its own, the director adds, “On a more personal level, I also see parallels with the way Antony’s life took such an unexpected turn, as I’d never expected I would be here now working with Japanese actors in Japanese. However, I am pleased to accept my destiny to work in Japanese theater — and to be tackling this difficult play.”
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