By William Shakespeare
Directed by Gregory Doran
Venue: Swan Theatre
Date: Saturday 20th May 2006
There are so many ideas in this play – and in my head. Shakespeare has written a love play/tragedy within a political play within a Roman historical play. Phew. And he probably knocked it off in a rainy afternoon down the pub!
This was a very good production of a very difficult play. I usually find it hard to engage with the main characters, for while I’ve experienced passion a-plenty in my life, I’m not aware of having neglected anything important to dally with my beloved. So I find it hard to feel sympathy for Antony, who has quite clearly lost all perspective in his infatuation with Cleopatra. Perhaps I would find it easier to understand if I could look at her and think “I wouldn’t mind a bit of that!”, but so far I haven’t found any of them that attractive (and at least one was, frankly, repulsive). Lack of maturity or experience on my part, I’m sure.
Octavius Caesar is usually portrayed as a cold fish, and is equally hard to like; to be fair, this production gives him a bit more passion, but also a tendency to shake – possibly intended as a reference to Julius Caesar’s epilepsy, though as Octavius was his adopted son, and not genetically linked as far as I know, it simply proves a bit of a distraction. [Oops. Since discovered he was, in fact, Julius’ great nephew.]
This doesn’t leave many of the main characters to be fond of. Fortunately, this production is replete with excellent performances in the lesser parts. I’ve usually liked Enobarbus – when you’re hacked off with the main characters, it’s always helpful to have a cynic handy who can put the boot in on your behalf. Ken Bones did a fine job, though I would have liked his character to be more prominent (were lines cut?), and for his death scene to have had more impact.
The roles of messenger and fig delivery man (or ‘clown’, as the cast sheet so prosaically puts it) were little jewels of comedy acting. The messenger was so reluctant to return to Cleopatra after his first drubbing that Charmian had to push him on stage, and the look of relief on his face when he finally got away unscathed got the biggest laugh of the evening (and this was one of the funniest Antony and Cleopatras I’ve seen!). The asp pedlar was suitably obtuse about Cleopatra’s intention towards “the worm”, and following a gasp from Cleo as she peeks inside the basket, returns several times to warn her to be careful. It was a lovely performance, beautifully topped off by the knitted red woollen cone he wore on his head.
Menas was particularly well played this time. He is Pompey’s follower who suggests bumping off all Pompey’s rivals at the feast they’re having to celebrate their new-found friendship. This character came across as more rounded, with more of a part to play in events than I’ve seen before. Also Pompey deserves an honourable mention, playing the part on crutches, presumably because of an injury. This must have made things difficult, but he still got the part across well.
One thing all these parts had in common was that I could usually make out what they were saying, even if I couldn’t always understand it. Sad to say, I found the volume of much of the early dialogue to low to hear. Given that this late play has some of the most complex language to unravel, I would have preferred greater clarity and projection. I kept feeling there was something I was missing – some underlying context or idea that would allow me to make sense of the whole play, if only I could grasp it, but every idea that came to me fell by the wayside when compared with the massively detailed and richly textured play before us.
I considered the possibility of veiled references to the Elizabethan/Jacobean political and religious situation – Octavius as Elizabeth, Antony as Mary, with Lepidus possibly representing Edward VI. Again, there was theme of boring, dutiful Protestantism stifling and overcoming beautiful, flamboyant (and older) Catholicism. But the play contains much, much more than this. I even looked at the possibility of Antony and Cleopatra representing Adam and Eve, falling from grace through ignoring their spiritual duty. As God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit were not to be mentioned or portrayed directly on stage at that time, it’s not such a far-fetched idea, but it still falls far short of explaining the wealth of other material in the play.
Betrayal stands out strongly as the most common theme – more so than love, passion or honour. Antony has betrayed Rome’s needs to pursue his relationship with Cleopatra, she betrays him at Actium and appears to betray him in sending conciliatory messages to Caesar, Antony betrays Fulvia and Octavia as well as Octavius, and everyone else changes sides faster than rats deserting a sinking ship.
Yet throughout all this, there is still that sense of an underlying love affair between these two people. Like an ageing Romeo and Juliet, there are many forces pushing them apart, but they cling to their need for one another like drowning people. The political situation that brings them together, the experience, power and lust for life that they share, make them ideal lovers but also make their passion doomed.
And so to the main performances. Antony was a grizzled veteran, calculating, especially in relation to his wives, and politically shrewd, but I was never sure what was pulling him back to Rome at all. There seemed to be no reason to leave Cleopatra. And although he was full of manly swagger, I didn’t sense the charisma that Antony could exert, along with his military prowess, to inspire loyalty from his men (which also undercut the emotional charge of Enobarbus’ death). The character reminded me of an older George Best – great in his day, but now sinking into serious has-been territory, largely due to his own actions. There were lots of nice touches, especially the political manoeuvring with Octavius, showing up the younger man by wrong-footing him, all smiles until he gets what he wants, then abruptly away.
Cleopatra was graceful and beautiful, but too intelligent and determined for my liking. This Cleopatra was a good match for Antony, and together they would have been more likely to conquer the world themselves than to lapse into abject failure. She wasn’t fey enough, not decadent enough. Harriet Walter conveyed both the deep grief and the lighter moments well, for example the tantrums with the messenger, but I didn’t feel enough sense of abandon, of wantonness and wilfulness in the character. This Cleopatra was just too much of a thinker.
The staging was excellent. The bare Swan stage was relatively uncluttered. Various chairs, cushions, throws, etc were brought in as required. There wasn’t much use of the different levels or the balconies that I can recall. The main joy was the back wall, or rather a glass panel in front of the back wall which had been semi-plastered, as if a couple of indifferent craftsmen had started the job, and then buggered off down the pub for the rest of the day. The loose patches of plaster were lit so differently, that the whole stage was transformed – now green, now blue, now misty, now purple. It also gave the effect of a rough map, suggesting a mix of sea and land, as well as the idea of new building and decaying ruins. With all these aspects neatly portrayed in one bold yet simple statement, this has to be the best set design of the season so far, and one that will stay with me for a long time.
[Steve saw the production again when it transferred to London, and considered that it had improved a lot. Both Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter seemed more comfortable in their roles, Pompey had got over his injury, and the whole performance had picked up a notch.]
© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me