Antony & Cleopatra
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Iqbal Khan
Designed by Robert Innes Hopkins
Music by Laura Mvula
The Royal Shakespeare Company
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Thursday, 6th April 2017, 13.15
Joseph Adelakun – Mardian, a eunuch / Scarus
Ben Allen – Octavius Caesar
Kristin Atherton – Iras
Will Bliss – Soothsayer
David Burnett – Pompet
Antony Byrne – Mark Antony
James Corrigan – Agrippa
Paul Dodds- Menas
Patrick Drury- Lepidus / Schoolmaster
Waleed Elgadi – Alexas
Sean Hart – Eros
Amber James – Charmian
Luke MacGregor – Menecrates / Proculeius
Anthony Ofoegbu – Diomedas
Dharmesh Patel – Philo / Ventidus
Lucy Phelps – Octavia
Josette Simon – Cleopatra
Jon Tarcy – Varrius / Demetrius
Marcello Walton – Maecenas
Andrew Woodall – Endobarbus
Voice – Zara McFarlane
Flutes / Whistles – Holly Cook
Trumpet – Abdrew Stone-Fewings
Guitar / Saz – Nick Lee
Tuba / Bass trumpet – Hugh Rashleigh
Percussion – James Jones
Keyboards – Bruce Neill
Cleopatra (Josette Simon) and Antony (Antony Byrne)
Antony & Cleopatra is intrinsically a greater play than Julius Caesar. The RSC made an odd decision to pair the two on one day for press reviews, yet the plays were not written as a continuing story, they just share three historical characters: Mark Anthony, Octavius and Lepidus. But the two plays have different directors here, and two of the three actors who played them in Julius Caesar are in Antony & Cleopatra, but playing quite different (and more minor) parts. Fine, but why then link them for reviews? I guess the common set designer? There’s a reason for switching Antony. This Cleopatra, while looking at least twenty years younger than her calendar age, is mature, and requires a more grizzled Antony. There are also those plot references to Octavius as a ‘boy’ and a ‘novice’ which require an older Antony. James Corrigan, who was such a good Antony in Julius Caesar, is relegated to Agrippa. As a compensation, Agrippa gets all Dolabella’s lines at the end.
Shakespeare was writing in short scenes, like a film, condensing ten years of history into fast flowing short episodes, and I always hope for exotic spectacle, the image of Elizabeth Taylor in the film Cleopatra lingers, even if we know it is not the Shakespeare play. So unfortunately does Carry On Cleo and Morecambe and Wise Christmas Specials. There is also a tendency to confuse the Queen of the Nile, who was Greek, with the Queen of Sheba, who was African.
In common with the rest of the season so far, there are no gimmicks. No stretched connections to a contemporary issue. It’s Roman and Egyptian in the costumes and settings we expect.
The play opens with a BANG! Probably the loudest amplified drums they’ve ever had at the RSC, with an Egyptian dance sequence which must involve nearly the entire cast in masks.
Cleopatra’s Egypt is established with a cat statue, and so appropriately, Josette Simon’s Cleopatra is like a cat playing with mice. And rats. This is a Cleopatra of extraordinary volatility, so that her ladies, Charmian (Amber James) and Iris (Kristin Atherton) watch her throughout with a mixture of apprehension, fear and in Charmian’s case, suspiciousness and cynicism. Cleopatra is hardly ever seen alone. Her two ladies, Iras and Charmian are always by her side, as is Mardian, her eunuch. They’ve seen it all, not that it means they’re not afraid of her, but they are used to her, and so wary. This is a Cleopatra who can torture a messenger with one sharp fingernail below his chin. Such is her power, that he has to stand there and take this tiny instrument of agony. Passion, hypocrisy, cruelty, pretence all bundle in her, yet Cleopatra’s motives must remain an enigma to the viewer. You cannot take your eyes off this Cleopatra from the beginning to the spectacular and totally surprising and dignified end. Her vocal range is extraordinary. Some critics didn’t like her freedom with the lines. For us, she was the best Cleopatra we have ever seen. She has a rapid succession of costumes too, all of which are stunning.
Cleopatra (Josette Simon)
She first appears ascending from below, writhing on a bed with Mark Antony. The issue is back story. We need the prior knowledge that Mark Antony was once a mighty warrior but has gone to seed. This has happened in the four years which separate the end of Julius Caesar and the start of Antony and Cleopatra. The actor has to be able to combine the flashes of the great general, with the man who prefers the luxury and decadence of the Egyptian court. Who wouldn’t?
Cleopatra on her throne. Eunuch(Joseph Adelakun) standing. Iras (Kristin Atherton) lying. Charmian (Amber James) sitting.
There’s an issue. It’s a full 30 minutes longer than the RSC’s 2013 production. It’s too long, at 5 minutes short of three hours PLUS the interval. Most of that extra time is in the Rome / Battle sections. Hollywood called their version of the basic story just Cleopatra. As ever, it’s Egypt you want to see. Cleopatra, and Mark Anthony. The rest is back story and filler. It is simply too long. As ever, I don’t care much about the complexities of Rome’s Civil Wars between Octavius, Lepidus, Mark Antony and Pompey. I want to get back to the title roles and the exoticism of Egypt, just as Mark Antony did.
Rome is a lot of blokes in tunic, togas, breastplates and sandals betraying each other. It’s why I prefer Antony & Cleopatra to Julius Caesar where part two is just armoured Romans running about and arguing. However, this year the RSC did that so well in Julius Caesar, but here though done well, there’s too much Roman in-fighting for me. The Romans should be stressed and repressed. Uptight compared to the languid people of the Nile. I didn’t get that contrast as much as I have in the past. Neither of us liked the interpretation of Enobarbus as a gruff, Estuary accented, slightly thick soldier. Yes, I can follow the logic, but he was too much the surly sergeant to be a confidante. Octavius is inclined to fly into hysterical rage … good, but I’ve liked him as the icy bureaucrat in the past.
The Roman Baths … but who’s who? Lepidus (Patrick Drury) seated, Octavius (Ben Allen) declaiming
An issue was the first geographical switch from Egypt to Rome. It looks tremendous … they’re all in the steam baths. The trouble is when everyone’s wearing towels, there are no badges of rank, purple cloaks or gold imperial breastplates, to indicate immediately which one is Octavius, and which Lepidus and which various others who were just there for a wash or whatever naked Romans did in baths. Also, they don’t contrast with the luxury of Alexandria, because they’re lying around in towels too. Maybe I should know the text better, but I insist that any Shakespeare production should stand within its own logic and explanation. No prior knowledge admitted.
The set design is the third star of the play. We have the basic pillars from Julius Caesar, but massive drapes indicate Egypt, as well as the black cat statue, and later two pharaoh statues. In the second part, the pillars have been replaced with ruined pillars. The sea battle, normally a report, is demonstrated with a dozen large model ships (not “toy” ships as two reviews have it). These models are four foot long, and can be pushed around the stage with attached poles. It looks fantastic, not that you could really work out the marine battle tactics or results, even though one popped a little fire up on its wooden castle. Pompey’s ship for the onboard carousing scene is created with a huge sail and guy ropes very quickly. I thought they missed the cruel dismissal of Lepidus. Here he was just old and got drunk. They failed to show Antony and Octavius’ contempt for him.
The programme surprised me. It sets the historical context very well indeed. Then we have an article by James Shapiro on Triumphs, from Elizabethan times, back to Roman times. As it points out, the humiliation of being dragged behind Caesar through the streets of Rome, in some horrific pose, is a driver for Antony’s suicide, and at the end Cleopatra’s suicide. In fact, in the text, Octavius is conciliatory to generous. Is it distrust then? Then the article points to Act 3 Scene 1 of the play’s stage direction:
Enter VENTIDIUS as it were in triumph, with SILIUS, and other Romans, Officers, and Soldiers; the dead body of PACORUS borne before him
The article suggests that Jacobean audiences liked a spectacle, and that this would have been done as a major point in the play. This scene is often cut.
… playgoers of the Globe would have witnessed a formal triumph … It wasn’t enough for Ventidus to slay a great number of Parthians and win the battle; the Roman victory was incomplete without an enemy’s public subjection … Shakespeare understood that the threat of Octavius’ triumph (to Antony and to Cleopatra) … wouldn’t register forcefully enough unless playgoers had already witnessed just how awful and humiliating such a Roman triumph could be. Directors cut Ventidus’ scene at their peril.
I agree with him. But … I was waiting for it, having read the programme, and was expecting some gruesome tableaux. Maybe I coughed and I missed it, but I don’t remember a dead body being carried on, let alone a “Triumph”.
The leads justified their casting. Antony Byrne did better with Mark Antony’s protracted death better than any previous ones, coughing and spluttering horribly. It is inevitable that “I am dead!” will get titters. It always does, but he reduced them to a mild embarrassed ripple. He made the scene work, being carried to Cleopatra, with his stomach wound being bound up.
Cleopatra (Josette Simon), Agrippa (James Corrigan) at the end
In the end, Josette Simon is easily the best Cleopatra we have seen, playing against a strong Mark Antony, Set design, lighting and Laura Mvula’s musical score are all five star BUT I can’t get over the length with such a high percentage of dull Roman machinations. Nor did they bring out the interpretations of Enobarbus, Octavius and Lepidus to suit my view.
FOUR STARS ****
WHAT THE PAPERS SAID
Patrick Marmon, Daily Mail ****
Fiona Mountford, Evening Standard ****
(They both thought it better than Julius Caesar … I disagree)
Michael Billington, Guardian ***
Domenic Cavendish, Daily Telegraph, ***
Ian Shuttleworth, Financial Times ***
Michael Davies, What’s On Stage, ***
Anne Treneman, The Times ***
Mark Shenton, The Stage **
LINKS ON THIS BLOG:
In the Shakespeare 2017 Season, the lead roles are separate … Alex Waldmann and Martin Hutson in Julius Caesar, Josette Simon and Antony Byrne here. The rest of the cast are in for a full season. So see the other plays.
ANTONY & CLEOPATRA
Antony and Cleopatra 2012, Chichester Festival Theatre (Kim Cattral / Michael Pennington)
Antony & Cleopatra – RSC 2013 (Joaquina Kalukango / Jonathan Cake)
Antony and Cleopatra – Globe 2014 (Eve Best / Chris Wood)
King Lear, RSC 2016 (Kent)
Julius Caesar, RSC 2017
Cymbeline, Wanamaker Playhouse 2015 (Soothsayer, Philario)
The Tempest, Wanamaker Playhouse 2015 (Ferdinand)
Two Gentlemen of Verona, Wanamaker Playhouse 2016 (Proteus)