When I saw Antony and Cleopatra in Stratford, I felt that Artistic Director, Michael Boyd’s vision of the RSC ensemble and how it should be put into reality seemed to come to fruition in the production. The house lights are up for most of the production creating a real awareness of the audience watching. The vomitaria are used a lot for entrances and exits. Soldiers launched themselves from the circle into battle. Actors who are experienced, and who have been cast in lead roles in other productions, were playing smaller parts. These included Greg Hicks as the Soothsayer and Katy Stephens as a fascinating Eros who delights in the partying and ends up firmly tied up in the tragedy.
The production starts with the dimming of the house lights and Antony and Cleopatra chasing each other onto the stage. Shifting the focus moves straight onto Antony and Cleopatra from the very beginning. The loss of the Roman frame right at the start of the production changes the perspective of the scene. Though the Romans do appear straight after to comment on the two lovers, this slight amendement, presents Antony and Cleopatra directly to the audience, rather than through the Roman eyes. This is important because many of the negative comments about Cleopatra are from the mouths of the Romans, and by placing Antony and Cleopatra directly in the spotlight the audience are asked to judge them for themselves. The staging of the opening scene reminds me that in their most private moments, Antony and Cleopatra are never alone. We are watching as the Romans and the Egyptian court observe the fickleness and attraction of this relationship and by lighting the audience the public nature of the events is emphasised by widening the on stage audience to us.
I felt that the chemistry between Kathryn Hunter’s Cleopatra and Darrell D’Silva’s Antony has become more evident as the production has developed over the past few months. Together they highlight that this is the story of two older people who find each other very sexy, and can’t concentrate on anything but each other. Just watch Enrobarbus’s (Brian Doherty) reaction to Agrippa’s (Geoffrey Freshwater) declaration that Antony should marry Octavia and hear his emphatic ‘never’ at the suggestion that Antony will now leave Cleopatra, to know how much Antony is really tied to his Egyptian queen.
The cigar smoking Antony is not at home in either Rome of Egypt. He clearly loves the party and in this production Bacchus is his god. Like the other Romans, he wears a suit in Rome but he looks very uncomfortable in it, so when he’s drinking on Pompey’s ship, he commands the scene wearing his little sailor hat to undermine the formality. When he is in Egypt wearing his army uniform, he is the great soldier who can no longer win the battles. His death is both tragic and comic at the same time. I could weep when Eros kills himself instead of stab the dishonoured Antony, but feel frustrated that Antony cannot even kill himself. In winching his dying bulk up to Cleopatra’s monument, the scene becomes comic.
Kathryn Hunter is not a stereotypical Cleopatra. She’s doesn’t try to mimic the Elizabeth Taylor and Vivien Leigh view of Cleopatra. As a small actress she uses her physical appearance to great effect. Her moods are as changeable as her clothes, but her intelligence and quick wit come over well. I like the accent and her lines are spoken with passion and energy. Not one line is underplayed. .
It’s not just Kathryn Hunter and Darrell D’Silva that give strong performances in this production. Their love affair is played out against a background of war and politics which span the ancient world and it is the very solid performances from the rest of the cast, and the excellent blocking of scenes, that make this production work so well.
The scene changes are cleverly thought through as they alternates between Egypt and Rome. The moment when it looked like Pompey was pointing his gun at Caesar as the scene shifted from one place to another was brilliant. The drinking scene taking place on Pompey’s ship is wonderfully staged, including dimming the lights and focusing on Menas as he reveals his murderous plot to Pompey. Clarence Smith brings Pompey alive and we really feel he is so volatile and he could easily explode and break his pact with the three Romans at any time. The production also finds a solution to how do you stage a battle on stage? The dance with the paper ships is very effective way of doing this.
Sandy Neilson’s Lepidus is unable to hold his drink and staggers and slurs in the drinking scene. He delights at the crocodile story. How strange the crocodile would have sounded to the Elizabethans? The night on Pompey’s ship is the start of his embarrassing downfall, which was exemplified as he was placed in the spotlight above the stage the doors slowly closing on his to signal his execution.
John Mackay used his height to great effect when playing Octavius Caesar, making him seem uncomfortable in company and often having to lower his head as he entered centre stage. He is emotional at the loss of his sister and unable to take his drink. At the end of the play he is the sole ruler of the world. Changing from the black polar neck to shirt and tie showed that even in his supposedly private moments he was still very self-aware of his image. As an audience we are supposed to think that his feelings for Octavia is more than brotherly. he displays fury at Antony’s betrayal and he recounts the messengers stories of Antony’s behaviours in Egypt with great clarity and anger.
Paul Hamilton’s messenger contributes to one of the highlights of the production. Terrified of the knife wielding, gun firing Cleopatra, he sticks to his text the best way he can. His determination to give his message shows that there is an etiquette around messengers and that’s why the beating of Thidias later in the play is brutal and humiliating .
I’m always amazed by Phillip Edgerley’s character acting and that he can look so different. His Menas and his Proculeius were like chalk cheese – the ruffian pirate and the smart Roman diplomat.
One thing I find a little confusing was Sophie Russell doubling up as Octavia and a Roman soldier. Clearly this wasn’t intended to mean Octavia was alos a Roman soldier, but could be taken that way.
I saw this production in Stratford and Newcastle and like the other long ensemble productions it has benefited from its development through time. I really sat on the fence when it came to saying whether I liked or not. I was unsure whether I found it engaging or not, because I had such mixed feelings about it. However, every time I saw it, I went away thinking a lot about it. I think now I’m hooked. What felt, at first, like a slow bland first half has speeded up and the episodic nature of the play in its shifts between Rome and Egypt are highlighted to great effect.
Reviews and Previews
Antony and Cleopatra Courtyard Theatre Kathryn Hunter Michael Boyd RSC Antony and Cleopatra Brian Doherty Clarence Smith Darrell D'Silva Geoffrey Freshwater Greg Hicks James Gale John Mackay Kathryn Hunter Katy Stephens Michael Boyd Phillip Edgerley RSC Sandy Neilson Sophie Russell Theatre Royal Newcastle Tunji Kasim