Antony & Cleopatra
A competent iteration of a flawed Shakespeare play, performed at a fabulous London venue
One of the common issues many critics seem to have with this play is that it is unsure of its nature. It’s not a true ‘historical re-enactment’ (too many liberties), nor a ‘fictional drama’ (too beholden to facts). Similarly, it is difficult to class it as as a ‘tragedy’ when its ‘star-crossed lovers’ are as self-actualised, middle-aged, capricious, and selfish as these two. Similarly, it is hard to consider it a ‘comedy’ when much of the humour comes from such bad behaviour.
Oh…and the casual misogyny and racism!
No matter how chaotic and arbitrary the political intrigue, warfare, and power-plays get, these are still seen – within the play - as ‘male pursuits’, and therefore worthy motivations. It is Antony’s love for Cleopatra that is shown to be the main obstacle to his personal pursuit of duty and honor. His wife, his troops - even Rome – are all abandoned while he ‘washes his cares away in a river in Egypt’. It’s almost as if Cleopatra were some kind of other-worldly ‘succubus’; firstly bewitching him, then drawing all male-centric virtues from his heart, mind, and loins.
Save for Antony, the only interaction Cleopatra seems to have – at least until the end of the play – is with her sycophantic female handmaids, her emasculated eunuch, or when torturing (physically and emotionally) a messenger. It’s almost as if the play is suggesting that – when in the presence of a powerful, black woman – a man must leave his senses, his will, or his testicles at the door. Wow!
Of course it is difficult to expect a play written and designed for the sensibilities and conventions of 1600s England to conform to our present-day ideals of gender and race equality. However, when looking at many of the tropes and stories handed down through the ages, it is important to discuss ‘the good, The Bard, and the ugly’.
Antony & Cleopatra
On the surface, the production might appear to get ‘brownie points’ for having accurately cast Josette Simon in the role of Egyptian queen, Cleopatra. However, despite some dexterous physical work – and some impressively versatile speech-work – I did not get sufficient sense of regality from her performance. The mannerisms felt rushed through, and a little contrived; only near death did she regain her royal poise.
Perhaps this is the real problem with the play; all the important stuff happens before we – the audience – arrive. Antony has already climbed the Roman ranks; Cleopatra has already been Queen of Egypt for many years; they’ve already met and fallen in love. As with most dramatic protagonists, we are only invested in them in so much as we can empathize with their plight(s); it’s not so easy to do so with these two even in death.
Of course it is difficult to expect a play written and designed for the sensibilities and conventions of 1600s England to conform to our present-day ideals of gender and race equality.
Antony Byrne’s Mark Antony is good value; powerful, helpless, and conflicted in equal measure. Similarly, Ben Allen’s Octavius Caesar is suitably sniveling. Elsewhere, Anthony Ofoegbu’s messenger Diomedes (tragically funny), Kristin Atherton’s Iras, Amber James’ Charmian, James Corrigan’s Agrippa, and Patrick Drury’s Lepidus impressed.
The sets were both minimal, and suitably epic; allowing the actors room to express themselves, whilst also being versatile enough to give a sense of different locations and geographies. The seafaring ‘war scenes’ were especially inventive; bringing to mind a costumed version of ‘combat curling’ [now there’s a future Olympic sport]. The choral and folk music, played by the 7-strong musicians, was well integrated, and the sound and lights were also well achieved.
All in all, this was a competent iteration of a flawed Shakespeare play, performed at a fabulous London venue
Info: The Royal Shakespeare Company's Antony & Cleopatra is at The Barbican until 20 Jan 2018 / book tickets