Antony and Cleopatra

William Shakespeare
Shakespeare's Globe

Production photograph: Nicholas Jones and Frances Barber

Dominic Dromgoole's second play as a director during his first year as artistic director at the Globe seemed destined to enjoy its own pathetic fallacy as storms raged over London on the day of the opening performance.

Luckily for groundlings, the rain, which had wrecked much of the day at Wimbledon, held off throughout the three-hour performance, although on occasions it did not seem too far away. Indeed, towards the end, when Cleopatra said of Antony "he was as rattling thunder" there was a particularly effective soundscape that owed nothing to the traditional five-piece band.

With Frances Barber in the lead opposite Nicholas Jones, there was every hope that the production would be equally explosive but although it has its spectacular moments, it does not consistently excite.

In part, this might be because Frances Barber is such a dominating stage presence that even seasoned colleagues can often do little but stand back and admire.

On this occasion, she looks heavily suntanned and made up, as the erotic Egyptian queen who has made a conquest of a man who should have been her sworn Roman enemy. Miss Barber has clearly been asked to play this part as much as anything for laughs and does so with relish.

On occasions, she also speaks with the kind of rapidity that will have baffled the many tourists who always flock to the Globe. However her verse-speaking and that of every cast member is delivered with great clarity.

In contrasting ways, she hits the heights on two occasions, first in the most breathtaking attack on the slave who brings her the news of her lover's political marriage of convenience to Octavia Caesar. She not only insults but viciously attacks the poor bringer of the bad news. The actress does such a fine job that as the scene closed, the audience as one applauded her.

Perhaps her finest moment though is when on hearing of Antony's death, she provides a highly moving valediction.

It almost goes without saying that the renowned death scene is a combination of high drama with just a touch of bizarre comedy. This is particularly the case when a snake that is almost as long as the Queen is tall is replaced by an (almost) invisible second cousin which patiently finishes off the Queen, not to mention her maidservant Charmian, given great character by Frances Thorburn.

Nicholas Jones is not an imposing Mark Antony and it is hard to believe that this man is "the greatest soldier of the world". He rarely seems excessively passionate or warlike and the sexual chemistry is not there in the scenes with Cleopatra. He does though have a great finale in a death scene that becomes great comedy under Dromgoole's direction.

Before that, Antony had the knotty problem of balancing his desire for the Egyptian beauty with loyalty to his emperor Octavius in a time of war.

Octavius played with slicked down greasy hair by Jack Laskey lacks nobility in this production and it is easy to see why Cleopatra and Antony together and also Pompey should believe that they could take his empire, covering a third of the known world, from him.

Pompey is the only real man's man on show looking like the lead guitarist from a hairy rock band or possibly - dare one suggest it? - the play's director a year or two back.

Dominic Dromgoole still seems to be experimenting with his new baby. On this occasion, while he persisted with the use of modern behaviour and body language, which will always appeal to a Globe audience, and went big for the comedy, ably assisted by his cast, disappointingly despite good opportunities, he did not involve the groundlings in the same way as they were in the first two productions of the season.

The next two plays at the Globe will show an interesting contrast with a real comedy, The Comedy of Errors, following a new play by Simon Bent. By the end of the season, we should be well able to come to a conclusion about the new artistic director and the exciting future that he plans for this unique theatre.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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