The Theatreguide.London Reviews
For the archive we file reviews of several London productions of Antony And Cleopatra together. Scroll down for the one you want, compare or just browse.
RSC 1999 - RSC 2002 - RSC 2007 - RSC 2010
Barbican Theatre, Winter 1999-2000
The Royal Shakespeare Company's new Antony and Cleopatra is very much a mixed bag, with strong performances alongside curiously shallow ones, interesting characterisations set in an inappropriate design, and powerful moments sprinkled among lifeless patches.
All Shakespeare's tragedies are about larger-than-life characters. In this case, it is the royal lovers who were willing to give up all for their passion. Marc Antony, one of the co-rulers of the Roman empire (and thus of the known world), is so enamoured of the Egyptian queen that he risks and then engages in war with Octavius Caesar. He loses, of course, and the lovers die, but we have witnessed the glory of their grand passion.
Alan Bates deprives us of some of this glory by playing Antony as a simple man with a simple problem. He's a bluff old soldier with no apparent depths, who just happens to be madly, uncontrollably in love with Cleopatra.
Whatever he's doing, whatever mood he's in -- joy, drunkenness, anger, despair -- she just has to snap her fingers (or, more likely, begin to weep) and he's at her feet. There's no explanation for this, and no real attempt to explore the internal conflict this addiction might create in him. It's just a fact of his existence which he has long since given up fighting or questioning.
If Bates never lets us too deeply into Antony, Frances de la Tour offers a Cleopatra of some complexity, who grows in the course of the play. De la Tour is not herself beautiful, and she plays Cleopatra as a woman who has used intelligence and feminine wiles rather than beauty to control men.
In the first half of the play her Cleopatra is always performing, always acting whatever role will keep Antony close and strengthen her position with others. She goes from imperious to flirtatious to helpless to seductive in a blink. She can faint on cue if necessary, or use her throaty voice to dominate, whine or purr as needed.
But she really does love Antony, and as the play progresses she gradually drops all her wiles to express her true feelings openly, a process nicely symbolised by the progressive stripping off of elaborate wigs and gowns.
Cleopatra dominates the last act of the play, and it is the naked (at one point literally) exposure of her true self -- an ageing, not-beautiful woman deeply in love -- that provides the production's most powerful and moving scenes.
Elsewhere there is little to engross us as other characters are defined simply. Guy Henry's Octavius is gawky and awkward in social situations but coolly confident in battle. Malcolm Storry's Enobarbus is a cynical seen-it-all veteran who has no sympathy for his general's infatuation; his famous description of Cleopatra is amused and dismissive rather than impressed.
Yolanda Sonnabend has set the play in a circle backed by giant mirrors that reflect the audience, giving the vague and totally irrelevant sense of a tawdry circus ring.
Steven Pimlott's direction is uneven, drawing that fine performance from de la Tour but leaving almost everything else flat. The production has little rhythm and pacing, and makes for a long and heavy three and a half hours.
Haymarket Theatre September 2002
This is a play about larger-than-life figures. For it to work fully, we must feel that the two royal lovers who give up everything for their passions are making the right choice, that their love is worth more than glory, honour and the entire Roman empire. And Michael Attenborough's production for the RSC, transferred to London after a summer in Stratford, doesn't quite pull that off.
There is a lot to like about this production. It is fast-moving, always engrossing, never dull or confusing, which is no small accomplishment with this meandering play. Es Devlin's design is beautiful and evocative, a metallic semicircle that changes under Tim Mitchell's lighting from the sensual gold of Egypt to the cold steel of Rome. And Sinead Cusack's Cleopatra, if she is never fully the former beauty who could entice Julius Caesar and Marc Antony in turn, is always the regal and imperious queen, carrying Antony through his waverings with the sheer force of her determination. And so her final scene, choosing death over disgrace, is as powerful and moving as I've ever seen it.
But were she and Antony ever really in love, or has whatever passion they may have had degenerated into a simple habit they cannot break? Stuart Wilson's Antony is seen once doing something that looks suspiciously like coke-sniffing, and one senses a weary addiction to her hold on him, rather than anything now or once glorious. Like addicts, they seem bound more by the pain of withdrawal than by any pleasure in being together.
It has been the fashion in recent years to play the lovers as past their prime, their respective glories of power and beauty behind them. But that imposes on the actors the challenge of playing characters who once were other than they are now, and Wilson shows us no hints or remnants of the greatness that once was Antony. Stephen Campbell-Moore's Octavius dismisses him as an "old ruffian," and thatıs all we ever see.
No one else shines much. Clive Wood plays Enobarbus as a bit of a court jester, a B-list Antony who is nothing more than a drunken idler, and his character's famous description of Cleopatra in her prime has no magic. (Will anyone who saw the Hopkins-Dench version ever forget Michael Bryant becoming transfixed by his own words as he realised in mid-speech that he was describing the one transcendent experience of his lifetime?) Campbell-Moore avoids the trap of playing Octavius as an emotionless prig, showing us a feeling man whose emotions are channelled in proper - i.e. Roman - directions.
As I said, it moves, it flows, it holds your interest throughout, and it has its powerful moments, particularly toward the end. But far too rarely does it give any hint of the depths or heights of tragedy.
Novello Theatre Winter 2007
This RSC transfer from Stratford comes bearing a movie and TV star, an interesting and frequently touching interpretation, and a length of over three hours. The degree to which those attract or dissuade you is up to you.
Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra are either the World's Greatest Lovers, striding majestically and tragically through a society of emotional pygmies who cannot recognise or support their greatness. Or they are an ageing couple well beyond their peak, bound together more by habit than passion, and self-destructively unable to recognise that there's a real world around them.
As with most of Shakespeare's great plays, both interpretations (and others in between) can work onstage, and we come back to the play to see which aspects of this complex relationship a director and cast will stress and illuminate.
Director Gregory Doran has placed this production well into the second camp.
Patrick Stewart's Antony is no colossus, military or amatory. He enters the play already a has-been, and by the end offers the rather pathetic image of an old man trying to recapture youthful glory. Harriet Walter's Cleopatra feels little beyond the need to retain her waning power, political as much as romantic, and uses her feminine wiles as the strongest weapon in her arsenal.
The result is a play that is more human-sized than heroic, more pathetic than tragic. Those who want more from their A&C will be disappointed, though what Doran and the actors give us works, its more subdued level letting us deeper into the characters than more exalted portraits might.
Though Patrick Stewart's return to the RSC after decades in outer space may be this production's big draw for some, he does not give a star performance, instead suppressing all but brief hints of Antony's former greatness in what amounts to a supporting role.
The greatest Cleopatra I ever saw was Judi Dench, who somehow portrayed a woman who had once been beautiful. Stewart gives us an Antony who had once been a great man, hinting at what-had-been even as he makes it clear that almost none of it remains.
His dominant character note is a rueful resignation, the awareness that she still has an unbreakable hold on him, even if he can not always remember why. Ironically, his one moment of nobility comes near the end, when he recognises what we have sensed from the start, that he lost his nobility long before the play began.
This time around, the play is entirely Cleopatra's, and Harriet Walter makes her a majestic and forceful woman, her power coming more from her determination and skilful employment of feminine wiles than raw beauty or sexuality.
She is (as Cleopatra must be) given to mercurial swings in mood, but is always in control and always aware of the effect she is having on others - every passionate outburst is followed by a quick check of her audience to see if it's working, and a quick shift in method if it isn't.
Certainly the final act, with the moments leading up to her death, is as powerful, moving and erotic as any lover of the play could ask for.
John Hopkins gives us an Octavius Caesar I've not seen before - not the usual cold politician, but an insecure boy somewhat afraid of Antony, who grows in confidence and stature, as he comes to realise how unformidable a foe Antony actually is, until by the end he is coolly dictating some of his speeches for the historical record. Ken Bones can find little more in Enobarbus than the gruff soldier happier in action, be it martial or sensual, than in talk.
Antony and Cleopatra
Roundhouse Winter 2010-2011
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