Antony and Cleopatra

William Shakespeare

The Royal Shakespeare Company

Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

(2010)

Review by Kevin Quarmby

How poignant in the programme centrefold for the RSC’s Antony and Cleopatra to see a photograph of President Obama alpha-male-patting the back of the late PM, Gordon Brown. Michael Boyd’s latest offering at the Courtyard appears desperate to communicate a contemporary relevance to this tale of love and passion and political deceit. Not between Obama and Brown, that is, but between Caesar and Mark Antony, jostling over Cleopatra and her Egypt. Hence, an occupying Roman force, complete with desert fatigues and weaponry, completes the Afghan/Iraq-conflict imagery in a somewhat heavy-handed way.

The militaristic action takes place on the Courtyard’s bare thrust stage. A semi-circular sweep of steel-plated backdrop providing suitable entrances and exits, whilst a raised platform emerges from its depths ready to receive the body of Antony into his love’s waiting embrace. Above the stage, a huge blue silk sail hangs in pregnant expectation.

As if to evoke the hot and sandy intensity of Egypt, Wolfgang Göbbel’s stark white lighting floods the stage from all angles, its intense and relentless brightness tending to homogenize the colour of costumes and faces into a dull uniformity. Tom Piper’s modern-dress designs likewise work well for the besuited Roman aristocrats, but add a touch of parvenu excess to the female roles forced to struggle in inappropriately revealing outfits or totter on perilously high heels. The result, a decidedly Primarkian feel to this Mediterranean world.

Problems in design feed into the problems of performance. At best, this is a workmanlike production, in which speed of delivery seems more important than beauty of dialogue. The play’s rough-and-ready modernity could be refreshing, but here leads to garbled speeches that fail to capture the tragedy of a warrior wallowing in sensuous self-indulgence.

Immediately obvious, and here it is necessary to commit the ultimate act of theatrical blasphemy, is how unsuited the great Kathryn Hunter is to the role of Cleopatra. We must believe this Egyptian queen can seduce emperors and conquering heroes; all men should fall at her seductive feet, readying themselves to die at her merest whim. Hunter plays an impishly petulant queen, as ready to brandish a hidden dagger or dangerously wield a pistol, as pounce on her lover with childlike glee. Her performance is impassioned: it is not sexually alluring.

Hence, the almost total lack of sexual fire between Hunter’s Cleopatra and Darrell D’Silva’s Mark Antony. D’Silva is ruggedly determined in his love, but there is a strange paraphiliac fetishism and obsession about the resultant relationship, which makes his marriage to Caesar’s sister Octavia less one of political expediency, more that of understandable choice for a man wanting relative security and vanilla mundanity in his Roman marital bed.

The play was, however, better served by some of the lesser roles. Clarence Smith touched a convincing note as Pompey, as did Brian Doherty as Enobarbus, although less convincing was his broken-hearted demise. Doherty’s Enobarbus is far too strong an ox to allow something as minor as denouncing his lord to split his heart in twain. On the Roman side, James Gale presented a wondrously slimy Maecenas, all pink shirt and hanky and decidedly dandyish in his deadly politicizing.

So, all in all, an unusual production that suffers from a unique difficulty, well known to weekly-rep producers of old, and revived in Stratford’s own repertory troupe. The necessity to make brave casting decisions is a problematic when dealing with a company whose diverse talents must be spread evenly throughout the season. Boyd has been brave in his casting. His actors do a fine job, but we, as audience, are pushed to the extreme when asked to suspend our disbelief. Forced to sit as observers rather than concerned participators, we fail to engage in what should be a deliciously intense drama.

Howard Loxton reviewed this production on its transfer to The Roundhouse