Antony and Cleopatra
Royal Shakespeare Company
When the RSC announced details of its complete cycle of Shakespeare's plays, it was obvious that one of the highlights was going to be the teaming up of Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter in Antony and Cleopatra.
There was also good news in the selection of director, Gregory Doran, who is one of the RSC's (and the country's) best interpreters of Shakespeare. That was a relief since this play has proved beyond the abilities of many directors over the years, with both the National and the Globe offering sub-standard productions in recent years.
The fear and trepidation of three-and-a-quarter hours of dull Shakespeare was unnecessary as Doran's creative team presents a lively evening with the two stars outstanding strongly supported by the remainder of the cast, down to those in the smallest parts. Doran also adds to the effect with a series of minor directorial touches that keep the interest alive in quieter moments.
Antony and Cleopatra opens with a view of the very real passion felt between the Cleopatra and the man who is so much in her thrall that he will give up a wife and a country for his love.
The character of the evening changes following the death of Antony's wife, Fulvia. The briefly distraught widower returns to Rome where he teams up with John Hopkins' Octavius Caesar and Lepidus to form a triumvirate which believes that it can conquer the world.
Their pact is sealed by a political marriage for Antony to Octavia, Caesar's sister (played by Mariah Gale, winner of the Critics' Circle Award for Most Promising Newcomer in 2005). Despite the enthusiasm of the young woman, this marriage is inevitably doomed by the overwhelming passion that her husband continues to feel for the Egyptian queen.
First, the triumvirs set their sights on beating the piratical Ariyon Bakare as Pompey. One of a series of excellent comic scenes shows the celebrations after a peace treaty is agreed. The drinking games get out of hand but not before James Hayes, playing, Lepidus gives us a fine tottering cameo performance.
On the other side of the world, the fun is started by Chris Jarman who makes a comedic soothsayer complete with striped body paint and a rich, African accent.
Best of all, Miss Walter has great fun at the expense of a Messenger (Chris Gazey) who brings her the news that her beloved is betrothed. Her anger and his quivering terror seemingly make a perfect comic combination, until they are illuminated by a later scene. On that occasion, the man receiving bad news is Antony and the carrier does not fare so well. Not only is Nick Court's Thidias admonished but loses all the skin from his back in a vicious whipping.
As love and war develop, the protagonists each have support from servants who reflect their passions and add to the depth of the characterisation. Doran is well blessed by this subsidiary team of actors.
Ken Bones shows Antony's right-hand man, Enobarbus, to be cool and calm. Edmund Kingsley and Keith Osborne, playing Octavius' aides are, like him, rather wimpish, while Pompey and Cleopatra receive help from the warlike David Rubin and empathetic Golda Roscheuval.
Adrian Lee provides appropriately exotic Eastern music, which he has written and plays with two colleagues on a series of unusual instruments. The design by Stephen Brimson Lewis uses every inch of the stage space, with a back wall stained like an ink blot changing character and colour thanks to Tim Mitchell's vibrant lighting. Their pièce de resistance is the final death scene in which Cleopatra meets her asp, in a stunning golden costume that is even better than a number of memorable competitors on the night.
Most people will have come to the Novello to see the performances of Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter. They will not be disappointed. Stewart in particular gives an acting masterclass perfectly demonstrating every human emotion during the course of the evening. His female colleague is nearly as good and will have won the hearts of every practically male member of the audience by the time that the final curtain comes down.
Steve Orme reviewed this production at the Swan, Stratford
Reviewer: Philip Fisher