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Cleopatra

Gareth Cadwallader
Lianne Bloemen in association with The Hope Theatre
Hope Theatre

Jordan Mallory-Skinner as Mardian, Shelley Lang as Cleopatra, Marianne Chase as Charmian and Alex Bedward as Iras Credit: Andreas Grieger
Mark Edel-Hunt as Mark Antony and Shelley Lang as Cleopatra Credit: Andreas Grieger
Shelley Lang as Cleopatra and Richard Mason as Octavius Credit: Andreas Grieger
Hamish Macdougall as Marcus Brutus and Shelley Lang as Cleopatra Credit: Andreas Grieger

A room with overflowing paper baskets, documents strewn across the floor and furniture and at a desk, a bureaucrat scribbling away and then crumpling up each sheet or casting it away. You might think this was the opening of a play from the 1950s Theatre of the Absurd but, despite the modern dress, it gradually emerges that this is a room in Rome in 44 BC.

Outside, the rowdy populace are celebrating carnival with noisy picnics beside the Tiber. Inside the house where Julius Caesar has lodged Cleopatra, civil servant Mardian is joined by Cleopatra’s handmaid Iras and then by her colleague Charmain, who is also a priestess. The latest news from Alexandria is that the flood-waters of the Nile are not rising while Pharaoh Cleopatra languishes in Rome, but their main concern is where Julius Caesar can have got to and whether the senate will change the law so that he can marry Cleopatra.

After Shelley Lang’s rather flibbertygibbet Cleopatra makes her appearance, it turns out that Caesar seems to have spent the night with his present wife Calpurnia and will probably be going straight to the Senate.

Marcus Brutus turns up looking for Caesar. He wants to make sure Caesar goes to the Senate. It seems very important that he should. It is: for now it is the Ides of March. (And we all know what happened then!) Cleo turns on what she thinks are her irresistible feminine charms, but upright Brutus isn’t having any of it.

Mark Edel-Hunt’s randy Mark Antony is the next caller. He is already one of Cleopatra’s conquests (though presumably Caesar doesn’t know it) but he fits in some serious hanky-panky with Iris while he is waiting and is well into his main course with an eager Cleo when the arrival is announced of Caesar’s great nephew Octavius looking for his uncle. Antony has to make a nifty exit by the servants’ entrance.

There is a running comic strain in the multitude of honorifics which Jordan Mallory-Skinner’s Mardian finds as ways to address his Queen. There is comedy in the way that the visitors are pushed or tricked into the same prostrations as her staff when first faced with Cleopatra and in the contrast between Mardian’s cool formality and the girlishness of Alex Bedward’s Iras and Marianne Chase’s Charmain, and between Mark Edel-Hunt’s sex-fiend Antony and Hamish MacDougall’s Brutus, but when coldly contriving Octavius arrives smiles freeze. Richard Mason’s restrained performance, marking him as Cleopatra’s nemesis, provides a concentration that suggests a much more serious drama.

The play feeds in some of the background but much of its effect comes from its audience already knowing the wider history around it. It is an intriguing idea to present Cleopatra’s situation at this point in the story, omitted from most versions of that day’s events, but it gives a one-dimensional portrait of the Queen with no development of the character beyond the petulantly flighty and the suggestion of a woman unable to acknowledge that her charms are wearing thin.

The result is a mildly amusing cartoon of historical figures with no attempt to make any real point, certainly not to use it (as the use of modern dress makes one expect) to offer any satirical comment on modern rivalries and regime changes through this two-thousand-year-old version.

Until the ominous arrival of Octavius, this is a slight farce thin on plot, though there is a real drama happening elsewhere in Rome. When I saw it, at the final preview, Iras's return with news of Caesar’s death lacked real horror. Perhaps that will come in later performances, but, like the papers scattered everywhere, the significance of which eludes me, this presentation needs tidying to some purpose.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton