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The rehearsal text of Daniel’s The Tragedie of Cleopatra is finally in existence. It involved a lot of typing, a lot of attempting to decipher Daniel’s occasionally whimsical spelling (and his printer’s equally idiosyncratic typesetting), and quite a lot of switching ‘u’s for ‘v’s, ‘v’s for ‘u’s and ‘i’s for ‘j’s. I haven’t modernised the spelling in any other way, but attempted this to make it just a little clearer for our student actors. And that’s the easy part done. Now for the cutting…

The text, read aloud by me in a whole variety of voices, currently clocks in at about one hour forty-five minutes. Factoring in time for movement, action, pauses, entrances, exits, and everything else that makes up a live performance, it looks as if the performance of the full-length play would take well over two hours. Yasmin and I were hoping for a production running for under two hours, so as not to test the boredom threshold of our audience – some of Cleopatra’s speeches alone last for around fifteen minutes – but we still want to remain faithful to what the original playing conditions may have been.

Luckily, there is a precedent for cutting: the inscription on the portrait comprises lines from Cleopatra’s dying monologue in the play. However, these are not repeated verbatim; rather, a total of twenty-four lines have been cut from the text, twenty of which were continuous, and some of which actually belonged to another character commenting on the action (Cleopatra’s handmaid, Eras). Furthermore, one of the lines has been simplified, whilst still fitting the metre. This suggests that if the inscription was supposed to represent lines from an actual performance of a closet drama, this performance may have been substantially cut and occasionally re-written.

In our rehearsal text, I’m making those same cuts indicated on the portrait; I’m also cutting elsewhere, although nowhere near as extensively. Most of my cuts occur in lengthy monologues, especially those belonging to the Chorus and to Cleopatra, when points are repeatedly reiterated or re-phrased. However, I won’t be following the portrait’s example in re-writing actual lines for clarity or sense. Indeed, the only alterations I make in the wording of the text are in relation to issues of casting.

When writing a closet drama, an author can introduce numerous characters who never appear again, or never even speak, without considering questions of budget, casting or doubling. Thus the cast list of Daniel’s closet drama, listed following the argument, lists thirteen characters, and this does not include the Guard for Caesario, the Guard for Cleopatra, Octavius Caesar’s Messenger, Titius (a Roman), Gallus (a Roman), and Chorus, which brings the total to nineteen. This is not a particularly large number of characters by early modern standards (most of the lists of characters in Shakespeare’s plays stretch into the twenties), but is still a lot of actors to muster for a country house amateur performance – or, indeed, for a research performance today.

Following the usual ‘original practices’ model, we will be doubling characters; the characters omitted from the cast list (with the exception of the Chorus) are those with few lines, only one appearance, and little significance, and so those parts will be played by actors already cast. The Chorus is slightly more problematic: it is explicitly Egyptian, and refers to itself as ‘we’ and ‘us’. Thus the Chorus will be played by all Egyptian cast members (barring Cleopatra and her son); the exact division of lines, and how the multiple voice will be achieved, is to be decided in rehearsal.

This solves the majority of casting problems; however, there are instances when doubling seems an overly complex way of dealing with the problem. For Daniel’s text is peopled with interchangeable characters with little characterisation, many of whom only appear onstage and speak briefly, or never speak at all, and some of which find their way to the list of named characters. These characters are the Romans.

One scene calls for three Romans to enter, accompanying Caesar: Dircetus, Proculeius and Gallus. Gallus never speaks. However, Caesar addresses him directly. Dircetus speaks twice, but never again; again, he is addressed directly. Proculeius is addressed directly, but does not speak until a later scene.

This leads me to the question: how expendable is a Roman? It is tempting to amalgamate all these Romans into one single Roman, and to alter Caesar’s lines so that he only ever addresses a single follower. This Roman could also play one of the guards; the other spare Roman, Titius, could play both the other guard and Caesar’s messenger. This reduces the cast list to thirteen, a far more manageable number for both casting and costuming. If numbers needed to be reduced still further, Egyptians (and perhaps especially treacherous Egyptians) could be doubled with Romans, and could play a guard and a messenger, reducing the cast to twelve. Then there would be just two Romans attendant on Caesar at any point: one, the generic Roman, the other, Dolabella, who falls in love with Cleopatra, and so possesses the clear characterisation and motivation that the others lack.

But are the Romans really that expendable? Or does such cavalier cutting destroy some of the unity of the text? That’s a question we’ll be chewing on for the next few days – we’ll let you know what we decide…