Antony & Cleopatra
by William Shakespeare
Edited and Directed by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Royal Shakespeare Company co-production
with Public Theatre, New York and GableStage, Miami
Saturday 15th November, 1.15 matinee
Jonathan Cake – Mark Antony
Chukwudi Iwuji – Enobarbus
Samuel Collings – Octavius
Ash Hunter – Pompey/Alexas/Scarus
Sarah Niles – Charmian/Menas
Charise Castro-Smith – Octavia, Iras
Joaquina Kalukango – Cleopatra
Ian Lassiter – Agrippa, Thyreus
Chivas Michael – Mardian, Eros, Soothsayer
Henry Stram – Lepidus, Proculeius
The concept is to set the play in colonial Haiti (Egypt) and Napoleonic France (Rome). The last production we saw, at Chichester in 2012, made a similar decision, with colonial Egypt and the British Empire. Cleopatra’s Egypt was after all a Roman colony with a puppet monarch. Having decided to go for a 19th century colony, Chichester had a white Cleopatra, as the original queen historically was a Greek-descended ruler of Egypt. The RSC takes the line about a tawny queen, and has a black Cleopatra. In short, the Egyptian-Haitians are black, the Napoleonic-Romans are white. As well as the concept, editor / director McCraney has radically edited the text, moved stuff around, focussed heavily on the Cleopatra / Antony tragedy at the expense of the politics and history (Good move for me!) and brought the colour issue to the front. Haiti was not only a colony, but a slave state.
The start of the play is as stunning as any production I’ve seen. The lights dim on the set of simple pillars, and the lights slowly reveal that beyond them is a pool of water. Cleopatra has her back to us, sitting in the water. She stands, naked (well, the lights are low, but that’s certainly the impression), turns to the audience and her female attendants come to drape her with robes.
Cleopatra is played by Joaquina Lalukango, who is American, here with an African accent. She’s tiny, very dark and the centre of the concept. She is mercurial, tempestuous, volatile. Ready to fly into total fury, or total passion or to swoon theatrically when crossed. It’s a wonderful interpretation, which sets Cleopatra younger than usual. It has tended to be a star vehicle for older actresses.
Jonathan Cake as Antony
Antony is played by Jonathan Cake, British, with a solid RSC history. He’s tall, bearded, with a classic Roman profile, and plays Antony as the laddish alpha male, one of the boys, ready to whoop it up when carousing. Hornblower? Flashman? Sharpe? Yes, one of those 19th century archtypes. He’s a strong passionate Antony, and the passion scenes with Cleopatra are convincing because both are younger than they are so often played. I’m totally perplexed by reviews saying they lacked passion. Charles Spencer in the Telegraph in a review so negative that it comes across as having a spiteful agenda, is strangely perturbed by the height difference between Joaquina and Jonathan. As I’m 6 foot two and my wife is 5 foot, I find it all perfectly normal. I don’t think I’ve ever disagreed with Mr Spencer, whose reviews I admire, more. His opinions are based on unpleasantly sizeist reactions to her height. I know that the 30th October critics preview is different from a polished 15 November performance. I’ve taught Francophile West African women from the ruling elites of Mali and Mauritania, and one of my best friends nearly married one. The level of sheer energy and flat out personal power that Joaquina exhibits is just right. And she delivers the lines superbly. A brilliant Cleopatra. Not an old thesp for a change.
Jonathan Cake is also funny, with a laddish 2010s habit of saying things ironically in audible inverted commas. That does come to haunt him at the end, actually. Antony is one of the most protracted death scenes in Shakespeare, not a writer known for succinct dispatching of central characters at the best of times. Because we know Antony can be very amusing, he got quite a lot of laughs with those so-hard-to-play “I am dead” lines. It’s not his fault, it’s an intrinsic difficulty of taking five full minutes to die. In fact, Cake was so good that he worked past it. On the editing, McCraney deleted the scene where the man arrives with the basket of figs with the asp. That loses a degree of relief between the two big death scenes. It’s a hard call. It accelerates the drama, but it’s also more relentless.
I loved both lead roles. The set worked, with three elements: the row of pillars, the water pool, and excellent use of cloth drapes. Switching to Rome just meant losing the lights on the pool and back wall, and lighting the thrust stage hard and white. The Napoleonic costumes were excellent, with everyone in blue and gold except for Octavius (Samuel Collins) in red and gold. Octavius was small, so Napoleonic, younger (as in the script) and Imperial. In the later scenes, just his stance, seated on a camp stool, conveyed his Imperial majesty. On the recasting of lines in modern intonation, I loved Octavius’s ironic low key “Welcome to Rome …” which was “Yeah. Right. Well. Welcome to Rome …”
The editing by McCraney involved using Endobarbus (Chukwudi Iwuji) as narrator, a device that worked. Chivas Michael was Cleopatra’s eunuch, as well as the soothsayer, and added a lot of humour to the role, another case of great reactive acting which commented on the central business.
It was a lively, quirky and thoroughly entertaining production. Add good music, good action and dance. Haiti gives the idea of zombies, which is a useful device for getting the deceased off stage. A bit of voodoo and they can then rise and wade through the pool of water to exit.
Cleopatra’s death scene is especially well done, with her attendant slowly filling a transparent vessel with snake like shapes inside with water. So Cleopatra can plunge her hand into the vessel, then lift it to her breast, instead of wrestling with a rubber viper.
There are always some negatives (though I was shocked by the Daily Telegraph’s one star review!). Here there was an outstanding negative. At the RSC we are used to seeing casts of sixteen or twenty. With this play, even twenty require considerable doubling given so many pitched battles in the second half – an intrinsic problem for whoever produces it is compressing three major wars into about twenty minutes. The cast here was just ten, which must be with an eye on going to New York and Miami. Ten is perilously close to “Reduced Shakespeare.” Add the colour coding of Haiti / France. With ten, they cannot consistently adhere to the colour coding, so Charise Castro Smith has to play Cleopatra’s attendant, Iras, and Octavia, the sister of Octavius who Antony marries. She does both parts very well, and costume differs from bunched African skirts to Imperial long skirt, but though she looks Hispanic in her programme photo, she looks white on stage. It would not be a problem until you come to the issue of colour coding as the main concept. Ash Hunter plays Pompey, Alexas and Scaras and is naturally light brown … a way round the switching between teams. Henry Stram has three good parts which are all white: fawning Imperial messenger, Lepidus, Proculeius … and probably several other bits. However, once you’ve based the concept on Haiti v France, I think you then have to truly go for it. I think they are three actors short of what they need. They needed another black female, and probably two more white males. The doubling is excellent. Costume points well, but once you accept the concept, you can’t cast colour blind. There was also a little accent drift. The Haitians should stick to African accents, and did, but among the whites, mild American (several of the cast are American) was used a few times, which is not a problem, but a few examples were more like drifts than conscious.
I loved it. Cast. Direction. Set design and concept. I still think three more in the cast would clarify it and focus it better.
Those front gallery seats are way too low for a six foot plus person. The result is legs pressed into the bars in front. Awful seating design.