Bloody civil war and infatuation that bordered on obsession. Shakespeare’s Antony & Cleopatra is possibly his most passionate, violent and emotional tragedy.
Yet, somehow, in the hands of Iqbal Khan and the Royal Shakespeare Company, it has been stripped of both its majesty and excitement and turned into a wordy history lesson for battle buffs.
The RSC opened its Rome season on Thursday with a bouble bill for the critics – three hours of Julius Caesar in the afternoon followed by another three hours, in the evening, of Antony & Cleopatra.
It should have been quite an event but it turned out to be a bit of a damp squib with both productions failing to enthral and both too long in their telling (see Julius Caesar review bit.ly/2njylNg).
It starts enticingly with an opening musical number from Laura Mvula and dancers wearing tribal-style masks, but the production fails to maintain the impetus.
Antony & Cleopatra is one of the most passionate love stories in history. She was the queen of Egypt and he a Roman ruler and great army leader who went into battle to quash rebellion and restore power and stability to a country at war.
Yet there is little passion or chemistry between Josette Simon’s heavily accented, tempestuous and frequently childish Cleopatra and Antony Byrne’s bullish Antony in the RSC’s production at Stratford-upon-Avon.
The company is renowned for ensuring its ensembles, from the lowliest bit part to its principal actors, speak with clarity and understanding of the text. You can hear every syllable beautifully enunciated. No mumbling here.
Yet I had a real problem understanding Josette Simon. Her breathing and pauses were all over the place, her pronunciation of some words and phrases awkward and unclear, and made worse when she affected a silly, petulant voice.
It’s also difficult to warm to Robert Innes Hopkins’ sterile set design. There are three or four giant cats that rise and fall when we’re in Cleopatra’s court, plus one of the largest swag curtains that I have ever seen on a stage, but that’s it.
Sumptuous it’s not. In fact it’s quite spartan – as is her entourage, which can only be described as meagre (one eunuch and two hand maidens). Her costumes also lack the sort of glamour we’re used to seeing with this memorable queen. Austerity kicking in, obviously.
Antony & Cleopatra is a very wordy play with a lot of exposition from its key players explaining the warmongering and politics, which can make it rather dry.
The story involves one of Rome’s most violent periods with civil war raging, threats from enemy countries, and unrest in Europe and beyond.
We hear endless reports from one soldier or another about the battles and their outcome and we see Roman soldiers, from different camps, excited and exhausted after skirmishes.
There is a lot of testosterone and blokiness (although not from Ben Allen’s Octavious Caesar, a rather weak and indecisive man and no match for Antony).
After a while you’d wish that you’d taken more notice in history or classics classes at school.
Byrne convinces as a soldier and diplomat but looks less assured as a lover. However his reaction to being told that Cleopatra had killed herself is well done. You feel his pain as he tries – and fails – to fall on his sword.
For a soldier he is hopelessly inept at commanding death. Lying on the floor, the audience and the man sure that he had successfully done the deed, he discovers, to his horror, that he’s still with us. “How? Not dead?” he gasps.
Cleopatra’s death scene, complete with asp and full frontal nudity, is dignified if unintentionally humerous as she struggles to make the serpent deliver its mortal wound.
Andrew Woodall, who plays the titular role in Julius Caesar, is here cast as Marc Antony’s closest friend, Enobarbus (complete with terrible mockney cockney accent) while James Corrigan, Marc Antony in JC, plays Caesar’s wily confidente, Agrippa.
Not an epic or remarkable production but a worthy one to be included in the RSC Rome Season.
Antony & Cleopatra runs in repertoire until September 7 and is broadcast live on May 24.
Antony & Cleopatra
Josette Simon & Antony Byrne fail to convince as doomed lovers in Iqbal Khan’s rambling Antony & Cleopatra for the Royal Shakespeare Company.