Thursday, 25 January 2007

Antony and Cleopatra - RSC 2007

Antony and Cleopatra
Royal Shakespeare Company, London, UK.

Having already seen Patrick Stewart's powerful turn as Prospero in the RSC production of The Tempest (also due to be revived next month at the Novello) I was expecting great things of Gregory Doran's version of Antony and Cleopatra.

From the first, Stewart is enthralling. Bare-chested and grinning he almost skips across the stage, hushing his followers as he gleefully hides from the pursuing Cleopatra (Harriet Walter). In form this is no mature romance. The lovers play games with each other: teasing, chasing, play-acting. They lounge together on a vast blanket, as decadent and spirited as young lovers, reluctant to leave their private world of pleasure, despite the entreaties of attendants looking on.

Stewart plays an Antony utterly beguiled by the Egyptian Queen. He is an addict, both desiring and resentful of his desire. With her he has found an escape from all things. Always capable of great gravitas, we here find out that Stewart is also extremely light on his feet. Walter is a Cleopatra who is passionate about her Antony. Far from the delicate beauty of myth, this is a real woman, an aging woman, despairing at the lines setting on her face, ripping off her wig in frustration. She is in love with a man not fully hers and is beset by petty jealousies and fears for the future of her relationship. In turns regal and childish she makes obvious her fear of losing Antony.

Despite its title, this is very much a play about men and masculine power struggles, with much male posturing and arguing throughout. John Hopkins as triumvir Octavius is extremely insecure and wary of Antony, and the tension he creates is almost palpable. Ariyon Bakare is a rather feral Pompeius, who nevertheless provides much hospitality for the triumvirate, despite the pleas of Menas (David Rubin) to allow him to slaughter them. Seeing how these men react to one another is fascinating, with Antony once again belittling Octavius by forcing him to drink and dance until he collapses. Of the followers of Antony, Ken Bones is likeable as the outspoken Enobarbus, and Eros (Chris Jarman) causes the audience to gasp at his sudden suicide.

The smaller nameless parts are here also made interesting. Chris Jarman is a painted and feathered old Soothsayer, at the start of the play appearing from under the blanket where Antony and Cleopatra are lounging. The wonderful Julian Bleach's grim Clown provides the queen with an asp and the audience with some gentle humour towards the end of the play. And Craig Gazey, once again the comic relief, is the unfortunate messenger sent to deliver news to Cleopatra of Antony's marriage, swiftly learning how to placate her undeserved rage.

The backdrop to this set is a deceptively simple wall with peeling plaster, variously lit with rich colours - golds, greens, silvers, reds - allowing great versatility in terms of mood creation. A balcony across the stage contains a wooden cage, and the audience is silent as it is lowered to meet the dying Antony being hauled up towards it. Antony's death is moving, and as painful to watch as any plan gone tragically awry. Cleopatra's consequent suicide is provided of all the ceremony one would expect of the legendary Egyptian Queen. With a gold throne and flaming braziers raised through trapdoors, her attendants Charmian (Golda Rosheuval) and Iras (Emma Jay Thomas) slowly dress her in the winged headdress and gold robe that we know so well. For a moment she stands - regal and flaming, a phoenix - and then it is time to complete her ritual.

Director Gregory Doran has managed to create an emotionally rich and charged production, balancing the military and the romantic, and illuming the passions contained in each. Stewart and Walter shine as the tragic lovers, keeping the audience enchanted throughout with their complex performances. This is a wonderful piece of theatre that would easily bear a second viewing.

This review was originally published on The Shakespeare Revue.

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