Saturday, 16 November 2013

Theatre review: Antony and Cleopatra (RSC, Public Theater NY & GableStage / Swan & tour)

The RSC pairs half a cast's worth of British actors with another half made up of Americans - WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG? Actually a lot more could have gone wrong than does in Tarrell Alvin McCraney's production of Antony and Cleopatra, which is intended to signal the start of a year-long transatlantic ensemble of actors, led by the American writer-director. In the wake of Julius Caesar's death, the Roman Empire is ruled by a Triumvirate. But the ambition of the ruthless politician Octavius Caesar (Samuel Collings) to rule alone is made more achievable by his co-rulers' weaknesses: Lepidus (Henry Stram) is getting on and the warrior Mark Antony (Jonathan Cake) has been distracted in Egypt by falling in love with Cleopatra (Joaquina Kalukango.) Unable to balance love with politics, Antony ends up making bad decisions in both and the royal pair pay with their lives.

I studied Antony and Cleopatra, alongside Twelfth Night, for my English A' Level, and hated both at the time. Once I'd actually seen Twelfth Night on stage I quickly changed my opinion of it, finding that the problem wasn't with the play, but with picking it pieces for two years. I've yet to have a similar epiphany with Antony and Cleopatra though, and this production isn't the one to provide it.

Not that it's without its positives; McCraney relocates Egypt to Haiti at the time of French colonisation, and also provides a radical edit of the text to fit this. Although this editing doesn't mainly consist of textual cuts, the production coming in at just under 3 hours like most; the main focus is on moving lines between characters to help it be divided up into a cast of ten. The most obvious consequence is how much to the forefront it puts the character of Enobarbus (Chukwudi Iwuji,) who here becomes more of a narrator figure, announcing significant scenes and even managing to stay in the action after his death, the Haitian setting seeing him resurrected as a sort of Baron Samedi zombie.

Cake looks the part of the born soldier and contrasts well with Collings' slimy Octavius. The problem is with the more crucial relationship of the title, as he and Kalukango have no chemistry to speak of, so the emotional core that's meant to be driving the action isn't there.

It's a feeling that spills out to the production as a whole: Tom Piper's design, its centrepiece a large pool upstage that looks like it might be the queen's famous bath of asses' milk (Kalukango opens the show with aSEVERE VADGE WARNING!as she steps out of it) helps create some powerful tableaux in conjunction with Stephen Strawbridge's lighting, and Michael Thurber's music, with influence of various Caribbean styles, often really seems to be building up to something dramatic. But McCraney's production doesn't seem able to marry the music and visuals to the text, so my suspicion that Antony and Cleopatra is actually rather a dull play came back all too often. Maybe my real problem is the play itself after all - but moments where it looked like this production might challenge that preconception didn't end up proving fruitful.

Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare is booking until the 30th of November at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon; then touring to Miami and New York.

Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes including interval.

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