Saturday, 25 March 2017

Theatre review: Antony and Cleopatra (RSC / RST)

The bonkers Titus Andronicus aside, the Roman plays aren't among my favourite Shakespeares, but they're hard to avoid this year: The RSC is basing its entire summer season around them, and only a week after seeing Ivo van Hove's Roman Tragedies I'm in Stratford-upon-Avon for a full take on the play that provided that epic with its climax: Antony and Cleopatra starts with Mark Antony (Antony Byrne,) who was among the victors at the end of Julius Caesar (which I'll be catching, out of order, in a few weeks' time,) as part of a Triumvirate sharing power over the Roman Empire. Lepidus (Patrick Drury) is older and a voice of reason, but the younger Octavius Caesar (Ben Allen) is more unpredictable, and could make a play for sole power if he thinks Antony's no longer up to the task of maintaining an empire.

And he has reason to think that, as Antony has been spending most of his time in Egypt where he's fallen in love with Queen Cleopatra (Josette Simon,) and his loyalties now appear to be with her rather than Rome.

Iqbal Khan's production takes place on a single set that will serve for all four productions in the season: Robert Innes Hopkins' slight reconfiguration of the RST has extended the apron a bit, making the thrust less deep and the inevitable London transfer, presumably, a bit easier to re-block; but contrary to how it looked on the online seating plan it hasn't cut off the ends of the voms, which are still in normal use. It's a period design, for this play at least, with a classical backdrop of marble pillars and some smooth scene transitions as platforms on ever-changing levels rise out of the stage. It's a slick design although if there aren't tweaks with each production it might prove difficult to stay interesting over four whole plays.

Of course I've almost always found Antony and Cleopatra struggles to stay interesting anyway, and sadly this is the case for most of this lengthy production as well. Usually the problem is that Cleopatra dominates so much that every scene without her loses steam, but in this case I was disappointed by Simon's performance of her: Although it picks up, she's critically low-energy for the first hour, easily getting upstaged by Amber James' fiery Charmian.

The sluggish effect means Egypt comes across not so much decadent as lazy and listless, so it's hard to take the title characters' side. By contrast Caesar, who is usually portrayed as a cold and calculating politician, is played quite emotionally by Allen - he may be pretty brutal by the end but we've seen him reach this from a starting point of caring about Rome as well as his sister: He's attached to Octavia (Lucy Phelps, notable in her brief appearances,) and when Antony betrays her he's angry for her sake, not just his own wounded pride. By the time Antony has his messenger Demetrius (Jon Tarcy) whipped, it's not so much the final insult as the latest in a catalogue of unreasonable behaviour. It leaves the show feeling like quite a contrary take on the story, where Rome is home to more (justified) passion than Egypt is. (Allen is also first seen in a sauna, so that wouldn't have hurt with making me more Team Caesar than usual.)

The play never really recovered for me, and after the interval there's a few questionable choices made, none more so than the naval battle sequence - I appreciate this is a very hard thing to stage, but for future reference a weirdly camp dance with large model ships, which then need to be awkwardly got off stage, isn't the answer. And speaking of camp, a word that's more likely than not a compliment if I use it in a review, I did start to wonder if movement director Villmore James' main instruction to the cast was "flounce" - this is quite a swishy collection of soldiers.

But in fact the only overt hint of something a bit less heteronormative in a play that usually offers up plenty of opportunities to play with sexual fluidity comes late on, with the strong suggestion that Antony's freed slave Eros (Sean Hart) is in love with his master, which is why he can't kill him. But this comes out of nowhere so isn't particularly satisfying.

Khan's past work for the RSC has been full of interesting concepts and interpretations, so it's disappointing that this one's more of a damp squib. And, in keeping with the company's apparent policy of shows running well over three hours and pretending they don't, it's a too-leisurely one at that.

Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 7th of September at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Running time: 3 hours 20 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks.

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