Antony and Cleopatra
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Jonathan Munby
Music by Jules Maxwell
Sunday 6th July 2014, 1 pm
Eve Best – Cleopatra
Clive Wood – Mark Antony
Jolyon Coy – Octavian
Phil Daniels – Endobarbus
Rosie Hilal – Iris / Octavia
Sirine Sharba – Charmiane
Phillip Correria – Pompey
Peter Bankole- messenger / Eros
Cristopher Saul as Lapidus (replacing James Hayes)
This play is growing on me, with every production better than the one before. Some of the most august Shakespeare critics put it among his greatest works, and I always found it hard to see that, but I’m fast coming round. Antony & Cleopatra was so innovative, breaking every rule. 43 scenes, 12 years covered, ranging across the whole classical world. Cinematic scene switching. Different voices for Romans, Egyptians and servants. It was NOT a sequel to Julius Caesar, and though the Globe is playing them at the same time, they have different directors and different casts. Antony and Cleopatra came about seven years after Julius Caesar, and in Shakepeare’s peak years. It’s a far better play than Julius Caesar. It has decent women’s roles for a start and comic potential to leaven the tragedy. The battle scenes are got over quickly, reported, sketched. The programme suggests that Antony & Cleopatra was an indoor theatre play, and that by 1606/1607 the wealthier indoor audiences were pouring scorn on the “swords and bucklers” stuff that was so popular in public theatres.
The stage before it started with incense wafting
The Globe was set up quite differently. The whole of the back wall was covered with red planks, including the interior of the musician’s galleries. The curtained back centre entrance was replaced by red wooden doors (kept closed apart from entrances). The triangular thrust section was gone, replaced by steps, with two wide ramps leading up to the sides of the stage (making it rather more like Stratford in effect). Large backcloths were used … dark blue SPQR for Rome, a tattered map of the ancient world for the battles section. Incense wafted around before the start. Music played through several scenes … drums for action, cello for tragedy.
ramps and steps … stage floor still bloodstained from the other Roman productions!
It’s played as exotic East for Egypt, while the Romans are in early Jacobean garb, mainly black. Not a toga in sight. The Romans default to Jacobean costume in contrast to the exotic finery of Egypt. One could ask why. Or why not? When the battle starts, the stylized bands of soldiers are strictly coded … leather breastplates and red for Egypt, metal breastplates and blue for Rome.
Antony & Cleopatra … the first time we see them
This one started five minutes before the appointed time with wild ensemble dancing, led by Cleopatra’s attendants, Iris and Charmiane. Then the principles burst through the rear doors, with Mark Antony in Egyptian robes, Cleopatra dressed as a man, and they’re almost immediately in heavy embrace. The three women … Cleopatra and her two attendants … work together as a trio. Eve Best is the funniest Cleopatra, getting roars of laughter with line after line. The background acting from Iris and Charmiane accentuates it. I had never thought of Cleopatra as a great comic role (well, with the exception of Carry On Cleo.)
Iris (Rosie Hilal), Cleopatra (Eve Best), Charmiane (Sirine Sharba)
Mark Antony is every inch the rugged man’s man soldier. Eve Best is also a sensual Cleopatra, descending to kiss a blushing teenager in the audience. The ages are right too. The RSC was a tad young, Chichester too old. The long pause Eve Best holds when Cleopatra is told that Mark Antony’s new wife, Octavia, is “thirty” is hilarious. Cleopatra’s physical attack on the messenger (Peter Bankole) who brings news of the Mark Antony /Octavia wedding is one of the best and funniest things I’ve seen in years. Great rolling eye acting from Bankole. Great signalling and prompting his answers from Charmiane. Tremendous physical acting from Eve Best as she beats the shit out of him, Even better is when he has to come back and is terrified of her.
Cleopatra is so funny in part one that you wonder where she can go as the tragedy takes over in part two. She still manages to get some humour. The long Mark Antony drawn-out death is a problem, and they combine tragedy with laughs, Cleopatra and her maids haul the mortally-wounded Mark Antony up the ramp from the audience with a long rope, while Cleopatra does a straight aside about “this heavy weight.” Then Cleopatra and Charmiane have to drag him off. We do have the Roman suicide scene before, just as we thought this was a moderately blood-free Globe production for a change.
The Egyptian court … Endobarbus centre in blue, Charmiane next to him
Phil Daniels as Endobarbus reminds of Johnny Depp channeling Keith Richards. Endobarbus is a crucial part, and it was right to make it so distinctive. At Chichester it was hard to tell who was Mark Antony and who was Endobarbus. Total physical and costume differentiation here.
Endobarbus (Phil Daniels)
Rosie Hilal, so good at Stratford in recent productions, doubles Iris and Octavia, which requires some steep hair changes. She contrasts them beautifully. These parts do get doubled … with such a large cast, I’m not sure why it’s worth it, except that with an actor that good it’s a shame to underuse them.
Often the exotic appeal of the Egyptian court overshadows the austere Rome scenes in productions, but this kept Roman bits interesting. The drunken scene on Pompey’s galley was loud, raucous and a lot of fun, showing Mark Antony back in his Roman context as the General and one of the boys. Having seen three productions where Octavian Caesar is short, thin, smart and uptight looking this seems the default setting for Octavian. Jolyon Coy does it well.
Octavian (Jolyon Coy) and Mark Antony (Clive Wood)
It all looks good. Characters parade across the stage as they are mentioned. Part one ends with Cleopara and Mark Antony’s wordless wedding parade with a fabulous gold headress. Her winged throne in the last scenes looks fantastic. Much of the fighting is led by two banner bearers in a stylized dance fight.
Eve Best with throne in the last scene of the play
Overall: clear 5 star play for me. Eve Best’s stunning Cleopatra will undoubtedly be one of the performances of the year.
Critically, it didn’t get five stars from the usual suspects though. It was dogged by bad luck, with Clive Wood out for five days at the start with a virus, and Christopher Saul just in for Lapidus after the original was injured and reading a script on press night. So the serious papers were more restricted, though it got 4 stars from Michael Billington in The Guardian. Billington says:
Clive Wood … plays Antony as an old ruffian who is seduced by the Alexandrian fleshpots, but who seems more at ease in the rugged world of male soldiery. Intriguingly, Wood suggests that Antony is faintly apprehensive of the quixotic, mood-changing queen, but totally relaxed when getting plastered aboard Pompey’s galley and profoundly loyal to the followers he’s betrayed.
Clive Wood as Mark Antony & Eve Best as Cleopatra
Spot on. However, Charles Spencer only gave it three stars in the Telegraph. He says:
Certainly the sexual spark between Wood’s grizzled old Antony and Eve Best’s mischievous Cleopatra seemed distinctly under-powered.Both of them looked as thought they would much prefer a nice cup of comforting cocoa to another “gaudy night” of wine and rumpy-pumpy.
Couldn’t be more wrong. Spencer said the same about sexual chemistry in the RSC production last year, and I totally disagreed then, just as I disagree now. What does he expect? Taylor and Burton? Live bonking on stage? But maybe he saw it while Clive Wood still had the remnants of the virus and no one wanted to get too close.
A few more days under the belt by the time we saw it, and it had clearly meshed and improved since press night. We were both thrilled by it. “That’s why you go to The Globe” said my companion as soon as it ended, “A perfect example of why it’s such a fabulous place to see Shakespeare.”
In the interval, the soothsayer sat with the corpse of a goat, pulling out bloody entrails (well we hope they were plastic). For the second time in two days the person next to us returned from the interval with a beefburger. The combination of watching someone pulling out kidneys and stomach tubes, with the reek of cooked meat was not pleasant. Still, I expect The Globe smelled worse back in the day.
The Globe has stopped issuing announcements about mobile phones, perhaps thinking “The King’s Men wouldn’t have done that.” It needs putting back in fast. We counted six ringtones near us alone, one loudly in a crucial speech.
OTHER VERSIONS OF ANTONY & CLEOPATRA ON THIS SITE
THE DUCHESS OF MALFI, 2012
Link to review of Eve Best in The Duchess of Malfi, Old Vic, 2012