Antony and Cleopatra
Royal Shakespeare Company
The Swan, Stratford
It's more than 20 years since Patrick Stewart appeared regularly on stage in Stratford. It may be stretching the point to suggest that the RSC has sorely missed him - but having an actor of his stature in two lead roles in the Complete Works Festival increases the company's reputation for being the best bar none at producing Shakespeare.
The RSC has boldly gone where no other organisation has gone before in staging all the plays and poems of our greatest dramatist as one major celebration of the Bard's work. Having a star of Stewart's calibre means the trek could be out of this world, if Antony and Cleopatra is anything to go by.
Has anyone ever portrayed the Roman general with as much depth of character as Stewart? Difficult to say - but he gives a profound performance which reveals a multi-faceted leader who is more than a playboy under the spell of the manipulative Cleopatra.
Stewart presents Antony as a mischievous lover who is torn between his feelings for Cleopatra and his duty as a Roman and a soldier. He is distraught when his troops lose their sea battle against Octavius Caesar; deeply compassionate towards Enobarbus when his loyal friend defects, and magnanimous in death.
Stewart's performance would be greatly diminished if he didn't have a Cleopatra capable of bringing out the extremes of his character. The Greek philosopher Plutarch said of her, "Her sex appeal, together with the charm of her conversation and the charisma evident in everything she said or did, made her, quite simply, irresistible." He could have been writing about Harriet Walter, such is her seductiveness.
Cleopatra is everything from a dignified ruler to a jealous, self-centred, scheming egotist. But Miss Walters never takes the unsavoury characteristics to their limit, meaning she doesn't lose the audience's sympathy whatever situation she finds herself in.
Stewart and Miss Walters are sensually dynamic, more in love than lust - which makes Antony's decision to marry Octavia, his co-leader's sister, all the more unfathomable.
Some people who know Patrick Stewart only as Captain Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek may be surprised that he's a classical actor of some note. Similarly they may be amazed to know that there's more to John Hopkins than Detective Sergeant Dan Scott in Midsomer Murders. He's commendable as Octavius Caesar, constantly on edge just like a loser facing Sir Alan Sugar in the boardroom on The Apprentice.
There are also superb performances form Ken Bones as Enobarbus; Ariyon Bakare who doesn't let a broken leg and crutches hamper his mobility; Chris Jarman as the soothsayer who wouldn't be out of place as Caliban in The Tempest; and RSC newcomer Craig Gazey as a nervous messenger who can't make any sense of Cleopatra.
This is another triumph for director Gregory Doran who has a fine backroom team as well as an excellent cast. The staging is generally simple yet effective, although it rises to another level when the dying Antony is lifted up to Cleopatra's monument and when the queen dies on her golden throne.
The only drawbacks are that the production, at nearly three hours, seems too long and Miss Walters' costumes, apart from the final scene, hardly appear regal enough.
But overall this is an astonishing production. Thankfully, unlike some of the plays in the Complete Works Festival which have limited runs, Antony and Cleopatra is on for several months. It deserves the sell-out crowds it's getting.
"Antony and Cleopatra" runs until October 14th
Philip Fisher reviewed this production on its transfer to the Novello Theatre
Reviewer: Steve Orme