Antony and Cleopatra

William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company
The Roundhouse
(2010)

Michael Boyd's modern-dress production of Antony and Cleopatra, which the RSC have now brought to London, has obvious echoes of modern conflicts. Full dress and camouflage uniforms mix with the sober suits of the Roman senate; its Egyptians are in Congress jackets and embroidered hats, the women switching from Cardin to layered middle-east ethnic wrapped in headscarves. The military sallies in the struggle for power that drives the play often look like something on the television news though the naval battle of Actium is given a stylized mimetic illustration as Cleopatra and her attendants weaves through the others on stage and Antony follows her, abandoning the conflict..

With no décor other than the rust-coloured metal curved façade that backs the apron stage which provides multiple entrance doors and an upper platform that slides out when needed and a matching stage floor, there is nothing to hold up the swift-moving action and the physical is thrown into sharp focus,. When Pompey (Clarence Smith), looking like a tattooed mercenary in contrast to the elegantly garbed Antony and Octavian with whom he is jockeying for power, enters, overlapping an earlier scene, he points a pistol at Octavian the claimant to Caesar's succession, it becomes the centre of the image. When Cleopatra dives beneath her skirts to produce a knife and a pistol from holsters on her leg, the focus is again precise. You notice every change of dress in Cleopatra and her ladies, matched presumably to the event she is attending though when one smart black number is swathed in a black drape, the Egyptian Queen looks like a peasant widow in a Greek or Cypriot village, a potent reminder that this is a play about older, middle-aged lovers (the real Cleopatra was nearly 40 when she died and Antony in his early 50s, in times when lives were often shorter)..

Kathryn Hunter's Cleopatra is an imperious control freak, used to getting her own way. Darrell d'Silva's Antony seems a pragmatic negotiator when in Rome, when he seems to be taking his marriage to Octavian's sister seriously, and John McKay's cool headed Caesar chillingly determined behind his suavity. These are all political beings.

But Antony's tragedy is that he is besotted with Cleopatra and there is little here to suggest any passion or reason for it. At the beginning of the play their affair (historically at least) is still recent yet even then there is no sexual electricity between them. If Cleopatra's 'infinite variety' lies in her constantly changing moods, Hunter captures them, though this is a woman who speaks as though she has carefully worked out what she says; she rarely suggests any spontaneity of thought. If her variety lies in infinite attractions or sexual accomplishments, there's little hint of them.

As an ensemble production this is well conceived, except for a music score of metallic tintinnabulations that sometimes highlights a particular moment but often, instead of underscoring a speech, detracts from it, especially when at its quietest. It is blessed with many excellent performances (Greg Hicks' Soothsayer for instance; Brian Doherty's Enobarbus; Katy Stephen's Eros), and telling details such as the way that Tunji Kasim's eunuch Mardian swaps his guitar for a rifle as Cleopatra goes on the defensive, but there is something missing in the very heart of the piece, the passion which makes the eponymous lovers throw away the world. That, perhaps, is why I found myself noticing the details and admiring the cut of some of the costumes rather than becoming engaged with the protagonists - though I felt strongly that I would not trust either Cleopatra or Antony and certainly not Caesar. How like contemporary international politicking!

In repertoire at The Roundhouse until 30th December 2010

Kevin Quarmby reviewed this production at Stratford

Reviewer: Howard Loxton