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 2002 - RSC 2007 - RSC 2010 - RSC 2017 - NT 2018
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 that¹s 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.
Roundhouse Winter 2010-2011
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.
Olivier Theatre Autumn-Winter 2018
The National Theatre has put out its A Team for a lively but carefully considered modern version of what can, in the wrong hands, be a dreary play.
On this occasion though, director Simon Godwin doesn't put a foot wrong in a three and half hour production that is intriguing, witty, passionate and at times thrilling.
He makes the most a series of lavish, colourful sets designed by Hildegard Bechtler particularly a notable Egyptian palace complete with ornate marble and mosaic paddling pool.
The cast is led by a pair of actors who each know how to play in various modes and turn their characters into living, breathing beings who each demonstrate great strength and weakness at different points as their fortunes rise and fall, not always simultaneously.
Ralph Fiennes as Antony is initially completely besotted by the Egyptian Queen, sacrificing status and very nearly the safety of his country's empire to unbridled lust. The actor is seen at his best in times of resignation and misfortune.
In the role of Cleopatra, Sophie Okonedo seems equally overtaken by almost manic passion, barely able to contain her joy in her lover's presence. However, when he disappears she soon descends into gloomy depression that is equally convincing.
While the duo make love in both the old and new senses of the term, the political world continues to turn, largely represented in Rome by Tunji Kasim as Caesar, frustrated by the lack of attention shown by his absent general as the state is threatened by Sargon Yelda's rather effete but indubitably triumphal Pompey.
Following the death of Antony's wife, the cause of inappropriate pleasure to Tim McMullen's deliciously louche Enobarbus, history takes an unusual diplomatic turn as Antony and Caesar form an alliance through marriage.
What ensues is often thrilling, particularly some devastating battle scenes, while playing out of the affair between the Roman redesignated as Emperor and his Queen is deeply touching, leading to one of those Shakespearean denouements that are one of the reasons why the playwriting genius's plays are still so popular over 400 years after his death.
Too many actors to identify individually shine in subsidiary roles, although Fisayo Akinade really catches the eye as Eros, the servant who has the misfortune to break the news of Antony's marriage to the incandescently angry Cleopatra, on pain of a drenching if not actual death. Gloria Obianyo and Georgia Landers also worthy of note for their dual roles as the Queen's handmaidens.
Ralph Fiennes is wonderful, Sophie Okonedo even better and both could be vying for awards at the year end. Simon Godwin also deserves plaudits for the kind of updated National Theatre production of Shakespeare that used be Sir Nicholas Hytner's calling card, having taken infinite care to ensure coherence throughout, making this a highly accessible, visually gorgeous and thoroughly enjoyable evening.Philip Fisher
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