Antony and Cleopatra

William Shakespeare

Royal Shakespeare Company

Barbican Theatre

From 30 November 2017 to 20 January 2018

Review by Howard Loxton

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Director Iqbal Khan’s production of Antony and Cleopatra presents the solitary figure of a fortune teller on the stage before an opening scene in which masked figures indulge in oriental looking revel, the Egyptian Queen hiding her face behind an animal skull. It is a foretaste of what is to come in this tale of a Roman beguiled by the exotic attraction of a female pharaoh.

This is an older Antony than the man who defeated Brutus and Cassius and joined Octavius, the adopted son whom Julius Caesar named as his successor, in a triumvirate to share the Empire with Egypt as part of his territory. A successful general, he has gathered loyal lieutenants but, now Alexandrian indulgence holds more interest than political manoeuvres, Cleopatra enthrals him.

Antony Byrne makes his Antony a leader with the common touch rather than a man of enormous charisma; he’s very human, there is already a feeling that his best years may have passed by, and he is living on his laurels. Cleopatra is giving him new life but it is at her whim.

Josette Simon’s Cleopatra is indeed a woman of “infinite variety” as Antony’s aide Enobarbus describes her: you never know what mood she will be in as she changes so quickly, one moment charming the next full of anger. Sometimes it seems a genuine reverse of feeling; more often it is conscious play-acting and she knows exactly what she is up to, she loves seeing the effect on other people.

She can be very relaxed with her immediate entourage but she loves playing the power card. This quicksilver, sometimes-cruel character (even more flighty than the Judi Dench version, for she had a warmth where Josette Simon seems heartless) has a great sense of status. Like Antony, you can’t get enough of her, whether elegantly upright her coiffure towering or barefoot and playful.

Antony makes a misjudged mess of things which doesn’t constitute real tragedy but Cleopatra’s sense of her own status produces a literal stripping down to the essentials and a hieratic assumption of role that is a great stroke of theatre on the part of both character and director—and very beautiful. Its mixture of formality and the touchingly personal gives the trappings of drama true tragic dimensions, made the more moving because Iqbal Khan takes every opportunity to point up the comedy in his production—which retains the comic lines of the countryman who brings Cleopatra the asps she has ordered.

It seems a full text and runs over three hours plus an interval but it is a clear piece of story-telling and clearly spoken. Intriguingly, Andrew Woodall’s Enobarbus, more man of the people rather than an aristocrat, does not deliver the famous speech in which Shakespeare rewrote North’s translation of Plutarch’s description of Cleopatra in her barge as poetic picture painting but with a wry cynicism.

Ben Allen’s Octavius is a man learning quickly how to keep power in his own hands, firm against even favourite sister Octavia (Lucy Phelps makes real a character often rarely noticed). Cleopatra’s attendants Charmain (Amber James), Iras (Kristin Atherton) and Eunuch (Joseph Adelakun), quick to comply with Cleopatra’s caprices, give a gay vitality that contrasts with the more serious Romans. All the performances in this production feel freshly thought out.

It isn’t just the text that sparkles: this production looks good. Robert Innes Hopkins’s costumes mix traditional Roman with a rich reimagining of the Egyptian and his settings (part of an overall design for all the plays in this Roman season) make a powerful statement with colonnades and rostrums. Rich fabric swages and a golden throne are flown in, stone steps and benches and statues of cat goddess Bast rise from below, steam turning stone pools into a Roman bath house.

A battle plan is worked out with big, beautifully detailed boat models, the action merging into the real battle. Scenes move rapidly on, characters emerging in the shadows even as the previous scene is ending and all given depth by Tim Mitchell’s lighting and atmosphere added by Laura Mvulas music, which underscores and punctuates the action as well as providing songs when called for. These strong production values match the playing.

Take heed of the length of both acts and plan appropriately for your own comfort.