Antony and Cleopatra
My review of the RSC Julius Caesar mentions the English comedian’s love of the Roman plays, and that Antony & Cleopatra was particularly popular for spoofs. This was fuelled by the two mega Hollywood Cleopatra films , with Claudette Colbert in 1934, directed by Cecil de Mille, then The Burton-Taylor epic in 1963. The Burton-Taylor was never so much a bad film, it’s not at all, so much as a grossly overspent film. The story of passion, desertion, distrust, getting back together reflected their reality so well, which is why the epic’s basic plot was well-known in the sixties. So well-known, that in the 60s, Cleopatra’s final speech was one of the most popular audition speeches for would-be drama students too. So one always has to put aside the image of Ernie Wise falling over, in a short tunic and a helmet too big for him with Glenda Jackson as Cleopatra on their 1971 Christmas Special; or Sid James as Mark Antony, and Kenneth Williams as Julius Caesar in Carry On Cleo.
LINK the Morecambe & Wise sketch on YouTube:
Cleopatra & Mark Antony (Mark Antony “in Egyptian fetters”)
The Chichester 2012 version is a recast version of a 2010 Liverpool production, both directed by Janet Suzman, herself a notable Cleopatra at the RSC forty years ago. Kim Cattrall and Michael Pennington are Cleopatra and Mark Antony. Suzman has described it as Shakespeare’s best female role. Add Bernard Shaw’s Caesar & Cleopatra, and various screenplays of the story and they’ve all played the Queen of Egypt … Theda Bara, Claudette Colbert, Elizabeth Taylor, Tallulah Bankhead, Vivien Leigh, Sophia Loren (in an Italian equivalent of Carry On), Katharine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave, Judi Dench not forgetting Amanda Barrie in Carry On Cleo and Mark Rylance in an all-male production at The Globe. Angelina Jolie is due on the screen in 2013.
We took strong issue with “Shakespeare’s best female role” in the ninety minute drive home. We negotiated a list that went 1) Portia 2) Lady Macbeth (you get sexy, manipulative, contrite and insane) 3) Kate 4) Gertrude 5) Helena. And we’d got to around fifteen before we admitted Cleopatra. Yes, it’s a great role for a very good-looking actress who can do sexy and powerful.
Julius Caesar at the RSC got round the costume question (British audiences find Roman gear funny) by setting it in Africa. The African robes looked enough like togas to avoid the ‘Wot? No Togas?’ issue. Antony & Cleopatra is different. Egypt was the exotic east to the Romans, as it was to the Elizabethans. The heirogyphs and sphinxs and images are so powerful that it is harder to ignore them, and we haven’t even discussed the frocks. Look at a gallery of stage and cinematic Cleopatras in diaphonous and floaty dresses.
The solution is to have the Romans in modern blue military dress, but Antony and his aide Enobarbus have let their hair grow un-Romanly long and Mark Antony is fond of wearing robes in Egypt at the beginning. Mark Antony indicates his robes on the line “these Egyptian fetters.’ He is like ELT teachers who have spent years in the Far East and start wearing 19th century Japanese costumes with split-toe sandals. An American colleague used to describe them as “gone bamboo.” Colonial India, Egypt and Malaya described people who fell in love with local costumes, customs and people as “gone native.” Cleopatra gets proper frocks.
The costumes start off as very good / great. The colonial motif is the key, Egypt the colony. Cleopatra and the Eygptians are in soft, flowing African clothes, the Romans in uptight high-collar blue uniforms, except for Octavian. Octavian proclaims his politician role amidst the military men with civvies: he wears a dapper grey suit. Later, as he assumes his statesman role, he dons uniform. Towards the end, his supporters wear scarves of the imperial purple. That figures. Octavian Caesar became emperor as Augustus. He has reached royalty status by the end. He managed to oust the other two, Mark Anthony and Lepidus, from the triumvirate, both clearly too far gone in age and alcohol to cut it anymore, and he has taken control. He is certainly not daft enough to embark on physical single combat with an old soldier like Mark Antony.
Octavian, played by Martin Hutson, runs away as the best performance in the entire play.
Here’s the problem. Kim Cattrall fails to convince me as Cleopatra, and there is no sexual chemistry oozing acoss the footlights with Mark Antony either. Michael Pennington is a Shakesperean actor of the first order. His is a BIG performance with a capital B. And capital I and G. And 36 point text. It was Mark Antony as Falstaff. The Chichester Festival Theatre is a cavernous space. I doubt that it’s bigger than the Royal Shakespeare or Olivier Theatres, but it’s less raked / galleried so the audience go back a long way further. Maybe that encourages the big performance. But it’s somewhat old-fashioned big bard stuff. We didn’t like it.
This Mark Antony is the CEO whose 12.30 to 2 pm lunches have extended to 11.30 to 3.30 pm. He doesn’t realize that the dynamic young sales manager (Octavian) topping up his glass is about to grab his job. That’s how it’s played. There are plenty of lines about carousing all night, and wanting wine, to support the interpretation of Mark Anthony as an ageing AA recruit. But this is a guy who ruled the civilized world as part of the triumvirate. The tragedy of the play is is that this powerful man (think of him in Julius Caesar) is seduced by his passion for Cleopatra into giving it all up. Dick-led? Pussy-whipped? Or just an ageing drunk, tottering around, grateful to get laid at all? Sorry, the latter is what came across.
The set works superbly in the first half, shifting from Egypt to Rome, with intermissions from Pompey on a galley (on the walkway above the stage) seamlessly. Rome is marked by a red brick wall which disappears when the stage is lit for Egypt, marked by the descent of exotic North African style lamps. We applauded the fact that Cleopatra’s court are all black. So many productions confuse the audience by being colour-blind and mixing things up. This is clear. The Egyptians are black; not that Egyptians were, but they had colonised up the Nile valley into Sudan, so it sort of figures. Cleopatra (being from a Greek dynasty ruling Egypt) doesn’t need to be, but there are references to her as a gypsy blackened by the sun. Not here. She’s blonde.
Cleopatra and her maids
The second half splays out the play’s basic problem: three military campaigns with two battles at sea have to be shown. The result is that the two excellent alternating sets (Alexandria / Rome) get replaced by pools of light in the darkness. The fault is the same in Julius Caesar, but the RSC got away with it rather better. This one needed cutting.
There are memorable bits. The dining scene with Octavian, Lepidos and Mark Antony, where it becomes so clear that Lepidus is very much the insignificant member: they forget to invite him to leave with him. Another is where Octavian has to hear a report from Cleopatra’s soothsayer, and talks to him loudly and slowly as if to a retarded foreigner. Not surprising, the soothsayer’s accent is hard to follow.
Octavian arrives at the end to find Cleopatra and her two maids prostate on the floor heads covered in black cloths, does a double take when asking ‘Which is the Queen of Egypt?’
Kim Cattrall does excellent reactive work when Mark Antony unjustly has the messenger whipped; he was kissing Cleopatra’s hand, and Mark Antony is jealous rather than blaming the bearer of bad news. You can see her radiating extreme disapproval, but deciding it would make it worse to intervene.
There are basic mistakes. Enobarbus with white beard and long white hair is only separated from his boss, Mark Antony, by his scarf / shawl. There are a lot of scarves in the play, tastefully draped ones, too. Enobarbus and Mark Anthony are way too similar in appearance. Twice we both thought it was Mark Anthony at the start of a scene when it was Endobarbus. Then when Mark Antony appeared it was a double take: there are two of them! OK, if you know the text well enough that won’t happen, but I expect Shakespeare to be clear without re-reading it the day before, nor boning up on the pass notes.
The smoke in the sea scenes hit the many schoolkids in the theatre, and the cacophony of severe coughing lasted the rest of the play, rising to a massive crescendo in Cleopatra’s dying speech which was grasped faintly between the coughs. It seemed to hit the kids more than the adults, but the start of term is the time for sharing germs at any school. This is the third or fourth time in a year that smoke has had some of the audience with wracking coughs. I think I’m immune from the days of oily blue smoke machines, and modern ones are far less toxic, but it causes coughing in some every time, even when it’s dry ice. At least one had a croup attack.
The soldiers look naff. There was an assortment of battledress; parachutists’ hemets, red berets, black berets, scarves to denote sides (wrap up warm dear, war gets chilly) all with ineptly brandished firearms. The blue dress uniforms of the Romans in part one could be anywhere from the 1880s to the modern officers’ mess formal attire. That was well-chosen, because the Egyptian costumes definitely look 1880s to 1920s, the colonial era of the British Empire. Cleopatra’s Egypt was part of the Roman colonial empire. The trouble with the battledress was that it propelled it firmly into NOW.
Is this an (asp) that I see before me?
The sudden Geordie accents from two were worse. They were just intrusive and odd in an otherwise regional-accent free play (though the soothsayer did, or maybe had, a middle-Eastern accent, veering to the tea-wallah in It Ain’t ‘Alf Hot, Mum). It’s nearly always crap when the soldiers arrive (RSC’s Macbeth was the exception).
It’s hard to rate a play when you disliked the interpretation of both of the lead roles. We liked set design, costume APART from the soldiers. Some unusual interpretations of lines were excellent, but you expect that.
5 out of 5. Excellent programme.Great synopsis. Good background from Plutarch plus director’s notes from Suzman. £3. That’s standard.