Antony and Cleopatra

William Shakespeare
RSC at the Theatre Royal Haymarket
(2002)

The RSC's second play at the Theatre Royal Haymarket is a great success. Michael Attenborough's production of this tale of love and diplomacy is very well realised with stunning performances, full of deep emotion, from Sinead Cusack and Stuart Wilson as the great lovers.

This couple pay more than passing homage to Elizabeth Taylor and, especially, Richard Burton as they alternate between passionate love and storming rages.

The second great relationship of the play is also one of love and hate. Octavius Caesar (played by Stephen Campbell-Moore) and Antony are in some ways two sides of the same personality. Their first meeting is very impressively directed by Michael Attenborough as the two sqare up and then duel like prize-fighters, while the neutral Lepidus (Clifford Rose) acts as a referee. This sets the tone for their subsequent battles, both verbal and physical.

There is a great contrast between the red-lit Egypt with its constant passion and the cold monochrome Rome, led by the puritannical Octavius Caesar. It is easy to see why a wild spirit like Anthony, "The Greatest Soldier in the World", would forsake his country and his wife for the excitement of an affair with the most powerful woman in the world. He also has in mind the chance to make a political alliance that could leave him as emperor.

Cleopatra is a woman who is used to ruling and having her way. Eventually, she has to decide whether love is more important than her country. Her indecisions are well portrayed by Sinead Cusack.

While the two main players are the undoubted stars, the support, especially from the excellent Clive Wood as Enobarbus, Antony's wise general who easily swaps between carousing friend and guiding light, is impressive. His female equivalent is Charmian, played with great feeling by Noma Dumezweni, whose inevitable fate as victim at the body of her mistress in a beautiful final scene, brings the play to a very moving but satisfactory close.

Es Devlin's se, switching easily between dull Rome and ever colourful Egypt, is enhanced by Tim Mitchell's lighting. The battle scenes are always good in RSC productions but in Anthony and Cleopatra they have possibly reached new heights, as a few terrifying moments convey all of the horror of war. This had already been prefigured by a weirdly spectacular Egyptian "haka" led by Israel Aduramo as Eros.

The last major London production of this play at the National Theatre was generally regarded as misguided, despite two big names in the title parts. Michael Attenborough and his cast have restored the play to the status that it deserves, with sexiness, lightness and great wit. This is largely through Attenborough's vision of a fierce passion that was, in some ways, almost more important than the wars that it provoked.

Philip Fisher