Kristin Atherton as Iras, Josette Simon as Cleopatra, Joseph Adelakun as Mardian and Amber James as Charmian. Pictures: Helen Maybanks

Antony and Cleopatra




From the eye-catching oriental dance at the outset, one could sense that director Iqbal Khan’s new Antony and Cleopatra for the RSC – part of their Roman Season (Julius Caesar, Antony, Titus Andronicus) was going to be something special.

And so it turned out to be – visually electrifying (thanks to its much-acclaimed designer, Robert Innes Hopkins and to Tim Mitchell’s sensationally effective lighting), fiercely combative, for the most part historically accurate and endowed with a cast – including the lesser roles - of compelling forcefulness and engaging, diverse character.

For the opening set in Alexandria, the impact was achieved by a use of the new Stratford apron stage’s underfloor machinery: a huge dog (the Egyptian God Anubis) rose from the floor – pretty scary in itself – and then the huge square central emerged bearing Cleopatra and Antony, abed. His apparent passion did not match hers, but this was perhaps one reservation about the staging: it was not effusively tactile in the way Antony and Cleopatra perhaps deserves.

Waleed Elgadi delivered an attractive performance as Alexas, effectively Cleopatra’s chamberlain. The two maids, Charmian and Iras (Amber James, Kristin Atherton) were not just attractive but hugely sympathetic, both here (where Atherton’s quality of speaking and facial alertness just had the edge) and later when James’s slightly glum but articulate Charmian came into her own.

Their most inspired moment comes at the end, as Cleopatra prepares her death, where Khan’s very carefully seating of them, at several times shifting angles, emphasised achingly the tragedy and pathos of the moment.  

But it was Josette Simon’s superlative performance as Cleopatra that dominated this production from start to finish. She rules the stage in every way possible, not just by her wonderfully crafted body language and clearly regal presence (till she pathetically – outwardly at least – envisages ceding to Octavius before opting for suicide), but her inventive, endlessly inspiring manner of speech.

Time and again she alters her inflections – not just in dynamics, where her anger (especially in her two major spats with Antony) is terrifying to endure, but in much subtler moments. Her pacing never feels the same: the voice engineers pauses of tremendous effect or speeds with astonishing gear changes to overawe and cow the largely male world that surrounds her.

cleopatra and antony

Josette Simon as Cleopatra and Antony Byrne as Mark Antony 

She purrs, snarls, wheedles, commands, sneers, complains, laughs and guffaws with equal impact. You are mesmerised by the way she brilliantly contrives character: here is a queen, a Ptolemy, who is real, both engaged and engaging, fighting for her life and throne but with time to be funny too. ‘I do not like “as yet.” ’ ‘Though it [thou] be honest, it is never good to bring bad news’ (to Antony Ofoegbu’s Diomedes, who is shambolic and funny – and cleverly so - almost every time he appears). ‘I do not like “but yet”… Prithee, friend, Pour out the pack of matter to mine ear…’ ‘Horrible villain! or I'll spurn thine eyes Like balls before me; I'll unhair thy head: Thou shalt be whipp'd with wire, and stew'd in brine, Smarting in lingering pickle.’ This is Lear-like language when Simon speaks it. She calculates every detail, every inflection, to perfection. The moment is deadly serious, yet also inescapably imbued with comedy. It is splendidly done by her as both.

‘What, was he sad or merry?’ ‘Is he married?’.’Let him for ever go – let him not, Charmian, Though he be painted one way like a Gorgon, The other way's a Mars.’  But her tears after ‘for ever go’ and rapidly shifting mood are one of a thousand truly inspired touches which Simon brings to this Cleopatra. And later, ‘I hear the doom of Egypt.’ It is in fact her own doom which is foreseen, for she, to all intents, is ‘Egypt’.

Newcastle-born Antony Byrne is one of Stratford’s most seasoned recent actors, with nearly 20 roles for the RSC, including Kent in Lear (opposite Antony Sher) and Henry VIII in the play of that name as part of the RSC’s complete works season in 2014. His burly, bluff, bearded Antony cuts a strong figure, one who despite his philandering you imagine could beat Octavius and Agrippa in battle.

His fascination with Cleopatra is obvious (not least, given the sheer intelligence and patent sex appeal of Simon’s Queen). He wavers first neglecting but then fulfilling his duty to Rome (including marrying Octavius’s sister, Octavia).

He looks like a soldier, speaks forcefully, can furnish a list (read out by Octavius) of oriental kings who support him militarily (Libya, Cappadocia, Commagene, even Herod, who latterly actually switched by Augustus). When he declares ‘I will treble-sinew'd, hearted, breathed, And fight maliciously’ one can believe it. And when he orders the whipping of Caesar’s messenger, we see a surprise malice and hot-headedness (an envoy demands good treatment).

There are a lot of very decent lesser performances in this production. I didn’t much go for Lucy Phelps’s Octavia, but was probably apt for a future Roman matron: she has a difficult, part-passive role to perform.

Why Antony wears battle-dress for his marriage, as do the others, I can’t see, Innes Hopkins’ costuming  (with Sian Harris) being on the whole so effective, with its crimson-tinged tunics and varied (possibly authentic) Egyptian attire.

Marcello Walton’s Maecenas suffered from a distinct lack of invention, but again Shakespeare’s use of him and Agrippa fails to emphasise their real importance (he plays Lepidus in Stratford’s Julius Caesar). Marcus Agrippa (James Corrigan) was the real victor of the battle of Actium (not Alexandria, as here: ‘Go forth, Agrippa, and begin the fight’).

Octavia and Octavius

Lucy Phelps as Octavia and Ben Allen as Octavius Caesar

Corrigan’s lines were stylishly spoken, and one sees in him Octavius’s key adviser in this play; he has presence, and one can see him as a fine, cogent Antony in the RSC’s current Julius Caesar. One wishes he had a decent soliloquy here. But he does have one memorable outpouring, for it is he who (fatally) suggests Antony marry Octavia: ‘…To hold you in perpetual amity, To make you brothers, and to knit your hearts With an unslipping knot…By this marriage, All little jealousies, which now seem great…Would then be nothing: truths would be tales, Where now half tales be truths….’ These fifteen lines revealed an, at best, capable and striking speaker. No wonder he sways the Roman crowd elsewhere.

Agrippa is also humane: he joins with Octavius in lamenting Antony’s death: ‘And strange it is, That nature must compel us to lament Our most persisted deeds.’  It’s a rare moment, for an Agrippa elsewhere reduced to ‘Good Enobarbus!’ ‘O, rare for Antony!’ ‘Tis a noble Lepidus!’ Rather more character lies in ‘O Antony! O thou Arabian bird!’ or ‘Royal wench!
She made great Caesar lay his sword to bed: He plough'd her, and she cropp'd.’ But however thin the sentiment, Corrigan gave it weight. Here as elsewhere, Voice and Text Coach Kate Godfrey would seem to have done her bit.

Three other characters had the lines to make an impact. Chief of these was the rather splendid, cockney-spoken Domitius Enobarbus (‘Bronzebeard’) of Andrew Woodall, an actor virtually new to the RSC, but clearly one they should hang on to. Shakespeare makes Enobarbus the sly but perceptive commentator in this play, who hangs on to reality: hovering somewhere between cynical Mercutio and Troilus and Cressida’s bitter Thersites. All of this Woodall captured in scene after scene, often enough alone onstage and well capable of commanding it. One misses seeing him seriously in arms (Fight Director: Kev McCurdy) since Pompey says approvingly to him ‘I have seen thee fight, When I have envied thy behaviour;’ to which he replies, honestly of course, ‘ I never loved you much; but I ha' praised ye, When you have well deserved ten times as much.’

Enobarbus, a former Brutus supporter, defects to Octavius at Actium – how well Shakespeare echoes his sources. By contrast, Byrne’s Antony shows his magnanimity  – Go, Eros, send his treasure after; do it; Detain no jot, I charge thee: write to him…gentle adieus and greetings; Say that I wish he never find more cause To change a master.’

This induces in Enobarbus a powerful solo scene of guilt and regret (‘And I an ass, am onion-eyed’): he sounds near the end as if he is on the verge of suicide (actually he died of a fever.)

Octavius and schoolteacher

Ben Allen as Octavius Caesar and Patrick Drury as Marcus Aemilius Lepidus

I liked David Burnett’s Sextus Pompeius. He looked more of a soldier (‘strong at sea’) and leader than Caesar or Antony, bestriding the stage with confidence (perhaps crucial in such parleys), and delivering his lines with equal assurance. His Marullus (the tribune) doubtless ignites the first scene of Julius Caesar. Here too, ‘The people love me, and the sea is mine; My powers are crescent, and my auguring hope Says it will come to the full.

He sneers at Lepidus and has limited time for the pampered Antony (‘I did not think This amorous surfeiter would have donn'd his helm For such a petty war.’ Sextus has several extended and pertinent speeches. His relation to and dealings with the triumvirs’ in fact provide a useful subplot. And he carries it off well - as did one of his followers, Menas (Paul Dodds), who served up several nice short cameos).

Patrick Drury’s Lepidus (Marcus Aemilius Lepidus) is the elder statesman and founder of the Second Triumvirate. In his upper fifties, he is a quarter of a century older than Octavius. Patrick Drury makes of him a complaisant character, as Shakespeare indeed presents him (Pompey: ‘Lepidus flatters both, Of both is flatter'd; but he neither loves, Nor either cares for him.’ In a way, he is a bit like the ‘Schoolmaster’, with whom he doubles later on.

His most prominent scene is when he gets seriously drunk at a largescale part and celebration (rather lively, colourful, cheerful and well-staged). One likes Lepidus, but can have little respect for him. His last appearance seems to end, rearstage, with his grisly execution. In fact, he lived around 20 years more, enough to witness a decade and a half of Octavian as the Emperor Augustus.

The third is Octavius Caesar (Ben Allen). I didn’t like him at first. He appeared as a pouty teenager (which in fact initially he probably was). But gradually, as the action progressed, one found his willowy frame (his diet was doubtless the opposite of Antony’s, who looked as if he went for fish and chips in a big way) compatible with a manipulative commander.

His feeling of a somewhat Stoic, abstemious being is in fact indicated early on: ‘You may see, Lepidus, and henceforth know, It is not Caesar's natural vice to hate. Our great competitor: from Alexandria This is the news: he fishes, drinks, and wastes The lamps of night in revel; is not more man-like Than Cleopatra.By the end, he can say ‘Take up her bed; And bear her women from the monument: She shall be buried by her Antony: No grave upon the earth shall clip in it A pair so famous.’ Shakespeare makes Octavius magnanimous before this, not least over the marriage of his sister. Allen’s character is, in fact, a believable one, and well-spoken too.

Near the end, Antony and Cleopatra are both contemplating death, or unsure how to avoid it.

In fact Antony has a few breaths left. Undoubtedly one of the most moving scenes – more so than the actual ending - involves Antony and his lackey and most faithful servant, Eros (Sean Hart), who is, inter alia, his dresser ‘Thou fumblest, Eros; and my queen's a squire More tight at this than thou: dispatch.’, who kills himself rather than follow his master’s order to run him through. The scene is imbued with homoerotic overtones – an ingredient missing from Khan’s staging up to now – and the pathos of it is considerable, even overwhelming, for by dramatic irony we know of Eros’ suicidal intention before Antony does.

When Antony finally runs himself through (with a sword only much later showing any blood) and repeats ‘I am dying’, it becomes almost Beyond the Fringe-like (unlike ‘O sun, thy uprise shall I see no more. Fortune and Antony part here’). He is hauled up to Cleopatra and her maids – atop a stage section that has at last, and only now, risen to full height, lending majesty to the queen although not to Antony: and now we feel that all light is fading over Egypt.

The sequence by which an apothecary or mysterious soothsayer (disguised as a ‘fig-seller’ - Will Bliss) brings in the basket with the snaky asps in it is almost comic, the queen’s death is superbly contrived by Josette Simon: again her body language comes into play. But then it miraculously ceases: she is the Queen on her throne. As her maids perish around her, she is found by Octavius bolt upright in her seat (she should have the full traditional regalia of office). With the murder of Caesarion (her son by Julius Caesar) the house of Ptolemy is no more.

Robert Innes Hopkins’ major designs work wonders: not least, a massive semicircle of blazing orange-red awning, which hangs down over Cleopatra’s palace, recalling the orb of the sun (Amon-Ra) evoked in Egyptian imagery. The Roman setting is captured in a series of squared pillars, looking as if they belonged to the Germany of Albert Speer, and clearly suggesting a stiffness in the Roman capital, in contrast to Alexandrian luxury. The pillars are replaced, in the second half, by a series of grey and grim standing stones, looking partly like splintered columns but equally like some ominous pagan scenario. The lighting on the cyclorama is terrific, including a blazing scarlet for the battle, in which a clutter of miniature ships, crimson-tinged (implying civil war), are manipulated by the actors. It was mesmerising. Elsewhere clouds wafted grimly and judgmentally across the sky, taking a range of greys and golds or beiges: Tim Mitchell worked wonders  

It’s a pleasure to report, so did the music. It never intruded, and apart from one fashionable burst with clattering drums it all contributed terrifically well to the evoking of atmosphere. The use of a tom-tom like (side-?) drum was magical. With just seven instrumentalists, composer Laura Mvula seemed to produce an ever-varying set of sounds. Even the paired trumpets made an atmospheric contribution.

So, nothing wrong: a gripping and masterly production. At Stratford to 7 September then at The Barbican, London from 30 November to 20 January

Roderic Dunnett


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