The RSC’s Antony & Cleopatra at the Barbican Theatre
The RSC’s latest production of Antony & Cleopatra offers sizzling performances from its star actors, a unique score by singer-composer Laura Mvula and Dionysic revelry in its opening act. In his review, our contributor Anthony Walker-Cook muses on its burnished charms.
As part of the Rome season at the RSC, Iqbal Kahn presents an undeniably pleasing adaptation of the monstrously difficult Antony and Cleopatra. Continually moving between ancient Egypt and Rome on a neutral stage, with levels that rise and fall as needed, the tonal uncertainties of Shakespeare’s play (a personal favourite) keep audiences on the edge. Despite this dramatic success, nonetheless, sparing moments throughout draw back from an otherwise marvelous performance.
Opening on a simple stage, lit in dark reds and blues, a Dionysic dance by the followers of the Egyptian Queen and her Roman lover establishes the mystic, evocative nature of the East. We open then to a scene of revelry and blatant beauty from Cleopatra and her entourage. It’s a shame that this shamanic quality to Egypt isn’t maintained, even though this continuation may have risked caricature of a more nuanced use of space. The moving stage often denotes a change in scene, but it is only through the characters that we learn exactly where we are. Instead, the rich and sensuous Egypt is embodied in one figure: Josette Simon’s Cleopatra. That Antony was ‘The triple pillar of the world transform’d / Into a strumpet’s fool’, as Philo tells us in the opening lines, is no surprise. An intensely difficult role, Simon offers a wonderfully realized Egyptian queen, capturing both her love for Antony and her ability to manipulate. Such is Cleopatra’s power that, even by the final act, when she appears to be at her most wild and uncannily woeful, by a simple laugh or brow held high, Simon leaves us unsure whether the queen’s emotions are genuine or just for show. In death, the emphasis on defeating Ben Allen’s Octavius Caesar is most pronounced. Removing her wig and stripping down naked, before being clothed like a queen again, her emphasis on artifice and beauty is paired with a near-erotic deep and husky voice. Although spectators will want to deny Octavius’ wish that Cleopatra be paraded in a Roman Triumph, Simon’s queen can only be described, ironically, as a triumph.
Fortunately, this production is helmed by a competent cast: at two hours and fifty-five minutes long, not including a twenty-minute interval, Khan’s adaptation is certainly an epic worthy of its subject matter. In allowing for this time, the play’s tonal uncertainties and challenging hybridity is fully realized. We see this especially when the comical aspects of Antony and Cleopatra are brought to the forefront. For the most part, this works well. The famous Messenger scene with Cleopatra early on is an obvious comic moment, with Simon’s subtle performance drawing out the queen’s wry and, at times cruel, humour. Rather disappointingly, however, is Antony’s death scene, which was made too comic by Antony Byrne: the possible hilarity of this now-incompetent general should come more from how others perceive him. As Amber James’s Charmian states when heaving Antony onto the monument to join the queen, ‘How heavy weighs my lord!’ Antony’s inability to fall on his sword is emphasized by Byrne in a slapstick-esque prolonged sequence, and I wonder if this goes too far in deflating Antony’s intended heroic action at his final, desperate moment. Yet, this shouldn’t mar an otherwise accomplished performance that renders Antony both a lamentable and guilty hero.
Similarly, Lucy Phelps’s Octavia appears too strong to recommend her to the audience as a truly sympathetic character, despite a crack in her hardened exterior emerging belatedly in her final scene. Uncertainty also captures Allen’s Octavius Caesar. When he meets with Antony and Lepidus, those other ‘pillar[s] of the world’, I was disappointed in his initial petulance. Though a leader from a young age, Shakespeare’s Octavius emits a steely resolve that transcends his youth. Sitting on the floor whilst talking with Antony and prone to outbursts of anger, Allen’s Octavius, by contrast, is portrayed at first in an immature light. Still, as the play progressed, Allen truly grew into his role; by the end of the aforementioned scene Octavius sits opposite Antony (the two blocking out Lepidus) as a leader, and in the last act Allen assumes the countenance and posture of the Prima Porta statue, an image of martial conquest and dignity. There is no doubt that Allen’s Octavius will go on to effectively build the Roman empire. Andrew Woodall, who also plays the title character in the RSC’s current production of Julius Caesar, offers the most surprising performance as Enobarbus. Pausing over individual words but never losing the iambic trot of Shakespeare’s verse, Woodall not only reminds us of the play’s political setting, but also of its lavish detail, its rhetorical pauses and excess. Choosing not to physically display Cleopatra on ‘The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne’, Enobarbus’s opulent description burns as much in our imagination as the original boat does upon the Nile.
Kahn’s production is carnal and dissonant, an apt combination for one of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays. Antony and Cleopatra has always excited and confused me; in spite of my many re-readings, I’ve never been able to fully understand the titular characters. Coming away from this production, these questions still lack answers. Yet, I’m certain that in Cleopatra and her Egypt Shakespeare layers the most rich and sensual of environments. With Kahn’s expressive production in mind, all I can do by way of conclusion is offer Enobarbus’ description of Cleopatra on her barge in the hope that readers may also understand what led Antony to love such a woman:
For her own person,
It beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion–cloth-of-gold of tissue–
O’er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour’d fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.
The RSC’s Anthony & Cleopatra was performed at the Barbican Theatre, London, from 30th November 2017- 20th January 2018.