The Theatreguide.London Review
Barbican Theatre Winter 2017-2018
The Royal Shakespeare Company brings to London a season of Shakespeare's four Roman plays – Coriolanus last month and now Julius Caesar, Antony And Cleopatra and Titus Andronicus in repertory through January.
The best thing about this Antony And Cleopatra is Josette Simon's sexy, funny, kittenish Queen, a woman with the emotional attention span of a guppy but so immersed in whatever emotion she's feeling at any given second that she can't resist consciously exaggerating it.
She play-acts her feelings for dramatic effect even when she is honestly feeling them, and she's her own most appreciative audience.
Playing Juliet one moment and Lady Macbeth the next, and channelling Eartha Kitt somewhere in between, Simon lights up the stage whenever she comes on (in a succession of modern-looking sexy designer gowns), and leaves it in shadows when she leaves.
She is, unfortunately, not matched by Antony Byrne's Marc Antony, who is barely there at all.
This isn't a failing of the actor, who has clearly been led by director Iqbal Khan to play Antony as a stolid hunk, a dumb-jock type who perks up when his appetites are being served but is barely aware the rest of the time.
(It is difficult to imagine what Cleopatra saw in him – perhaps she mistook his thickness for strength and then was having so much fun being in love that reality hardly mattered.)
The fatal failing of this production is that there is absolutely no chemistry between the two, no sense of the overpowering attraction that justifies Dryden's title for his later version of the story, All For Love, or The World Well Lost.
This Antony is attracted by the appetite-indulging sybaritic life in Egypt more than by the Queen, and this Cleopatra is playing 'being in love' for her own amusement.
As a result there is not only no emotional core to the play and no sense of tragedy, but it becomes just plain boring, dragging on through a very slow more-than-three-hours.
Even the final scenes can't connect the supposed lovers to each other. He kills himself out of shame for his military defeat, not loss of her, and she dies to avoid the shame of capture, not from loss of him.
(By that point in the evening we've watched her play-act her emotions so often that we can't be sure – or even care – if she is being sincere here.)
Elsewhere, Ben Allen plays Octavius as a tentative and somewhat petulant youth, and not as the icy and formidable foe we've come to expect. So the political drama, the question of who is going to rule the world, never takes shape.
Indeed, the whole contrast between cold repressed Rome and warm sensual Egypt is largely lost, in both the playing and in Robert Innes Hopkins's design, and one passing casualty is the scene on Pompey's ship, when the Romans let their hair down a bit and we should sense the anarchic potential they've perhaps wisely been repressing.
Josette Simon's Cleopatra is almost worth sitting through everything else for – almost, but not quite.
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