Antony And Cleopatra – April 2009

9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Andrew Hilton

Company: SATTF

Venue: Tobacco Factory

Date: Thursday 30th April 2009

This was a fantastic production. For the first time I felt I understood the play, at least to some extent. Previously I’ve commented on how it’s a political play, a love story and an historical piece all rolled into one. Now, partly thanks to the program notes and mostly thanks to the performance, I’m seeing it as a love story set within a political framework which dooms the lovers. They’re too important as public figures for their private love affair to be consequence-free. It’s a discourse on the conflict between the private and the personal, and when better to set such a discussion than in Roman times, when Roman aristocrats were expected to make their mark on the world, and personal matters took second or even third place.

Also, the historical context may be providing camouflage as many contemporary issues couldn’t be discussed openly in Will’s day, though what the contemporary references would be I’m not entirely sure. Certainly a queen like Cleopatra could be seen as a version of Elizabeth, though tonight I glimpsed some echoes of another queen, Mary, of France and Scotland, and the sort of turbulence her lively personality and not entirely disciplined emotional life brought to her reign. Given that the play was written, though possibly not performed, during the reign of her son it may not be too fanciful to see some allusions there.

For this production the “set” was as usual. There were a chaise longue and stool for the Egyptian scenes at the start and more basic tables and chairs for the Roman scenes. This meant a fair deal of furniture removal during the first half especially, with lights down, but on the whole the cast kept things moving and it didn’t get in the way. Costumes were again set in the pre-Civil War period, and Cleopatra’s were gorgeous! No flying scabbards this time, but there were a few wayward plastic glasses in the second half, and an unfortunately timed thump from behind us after Caesar’s lines about Antony’s death, “The breaking of so great a thing should make/ A greater crack.”. On the whole though, the audience were good as gold.

As were the performers. It was a warm night and they must have sweated bucketloads during the evening, especially with those costumes. The opening scenes gave us a very clear picture of the drunken, sensual Egyptian court, and Cleopatra’s sneaky ways of dealing with her besotted lover, Antony. Her women were well tipsy and prone to giggling, and I felt the hand of doom early on as the soothsayer fudged the bad news of their futures as best he could. They just laughed and joked as usual, silly girls. Antony and Cleopatra were clearly in love, though at this point it was mainly coming across as the physical kind; lots of sex, drinking and other sports. The deeper aspects were in question, and indeed were tested to the limit by the events they go through, but it became clear that something stronger than simple lust bound this couple together.

Caesar started this play pretty much as he finished the previous one, sitting at a table planning his conquest of the world. It’s nice to have these two plays not only performed in sequence but cast in tandem so that we can see Octavius become Caesar, and Antony both rise and fall. The contrast is clear; Caesar is disciplined and puts public affairs (and his political ambitions) first, while Antony has lost it completely through self-indulgence. Even when Octavia arrived back in Rome to try and broker a peace deal between her brother and husband, Octavius dealt with the political aspects of the situation first and only then, after a lengthy delay, went over to his ‘much beloved’ sister to comfort her. And how did he do it? By assuring her that her husband’s definitely off to dally with a strumpet in Egypt, and doesn’t care for her anymore. Not particularly tactful, but I suppose he meant well.

The meeting between Antony and Caesar was suitably tense. Strictly speaking, Lepidus was there, but really he wasn’t. He did start the ball rolling by reading from a prepared speech and Antony cut him short; no doubt he’s heard enough of Lepidus’s speeches in the past. When Antony and Caesar got down to it, it was clear these are two powerful and experienced political operators with significant military experience as well. Equals, in fact, which goes some way to explaining Octavius’s grief over losing Mark Antony at the end. They may have been rivals for the position of world ruler, but the loss of Antony diminishes Caesar. Agrippa’s offer of Octavia’s hand in marriage to Antony, to heal the rift between the two men, was another hand of doom moment, as Enobarbus rightly commented later to the pirate, Menas.

Speaking of which, Pompey’s involvement was not as strong as I’ve seen it be this time around. He’s needed to bring the two leaders together, and to put pressure on them to bury their differences for a short while, but he didn’t come across as such a strong character in this performance. The two scenes where he met with his opponents and feasted them on his ship seemed shorter than usual, although I suspect that they’re simply padded with song and dance in other productions. At least we got to see Caesar enjoying the teasing of Lepidus, and not being able to handle his drink as well as the others. Steve reckoned this was another example of his desire for control – he didn’t like being drunk – and I saw it as one of the few things Mark Antony could do better than him, which Octavius hated. Or a bit of both.

The planning for the various battles came across more clearly than ever before. I usually feel there’s a lot of repetition here, with Antony and Cleopatra losing a battle, regrouping, then losing another battle. This time I could see the differences, which this production brought out beautifully. The first battle at sea is lost because of Antony’s stupidity and Cleopatra’s fear. Their reaction to the defeat is different; he rails against it, she’s already manoeuvring politically by sweet-talking Caesar’s ambassador. Tonight I spotted, for the first time, the way that Antony’s ranting at her over the kiss Thidias gives her (on her hand) was a mirror image of the ranting she did at Antony early on, when he had just found out that Fulvia was dead. Neither allowed the other to speak, and the overall impression was that they’re well matched in temperament but that she’s probably the shrewder political animal, as she can’t rely on military might to get her way and has to use subtler methods. I found myself wondering how flirtatious Queen Elizabeth could be when she felt it would work for her, especially in the early days when her position wasn’t entirely secure (was it ever?) and she was a very attractive prize.

Then followed more political manoeuvring, leading to Antony and Cleopatra choosing to fight again. This time Cleopatra stayed behind, but the result was the same – a win for Octavius. The outcome was different though, as Antony’s rage at Cleopatra caused her to send him the fatal news of her own death, which led in turn to his botched suicide attempt. I don’t know if it always got laughs or if it was just played that way tonight, but there was a surprising amount of humour when Alexis brought the news that Cleopatra was still alive. Antony, who was slumped in a peculiar position, face down on the ground, reacted along the lines of ‘Oh bugger, I’ve killed myself for no good reason!’, which was very funny. I’ve not seen it played that way before but I felt it worked just fine, as we’d been to hell and back already and more was to come; a spot of light relief was welcome.

With this venue, Cleopatra’s Monument was never a goer, so the final meeting between the lovers was trimmed down but still powerful, with Antony dying in Cleopatra’s embrace. Now the action slowed down, as we’re left with Cleopatra’s final steps to prevent Caesar getting what he wants – to lead her in triumph through Rome’s streets. Steve saw Alexis’s apparent betrayal of his queen over her financial assets as being part of her grand plan. She wanted Caesar to think she was keeping money back, perhaps as part of a plan to escape, in order to convince him she wasn’t contemplating suicide. From Caesar’s response it worked, though Steve wasn’t sure if Alexis was in on the scheme or not. Just the way she said “speak true” with a meaningful look, was enough. I can’t say I spotted this, but I did hear tonight for the first time the details of her excuses for the deception, all intended to present herself as a feminine woman, not too clever, keen to look her best and to ingratiate herself with the new power in town. Which simply reinforced my opinion of her as a very shrewd operator, and also gave Caesar the impression that she wasn’t seeking death.

The final death scene was moving, with Iris taking the plunge before her mistress, and Charmian following her shortly afterwards. The asp man was OK, nothing special, while Dolabella was clearly smitten with the queen, and his reverence for her was clearly noticed by the rest of the Romans. As he rose to his feet they were all looking at him, and then the lights went down. A good ending.

The performances were all excellent, again. Despite the many parts taken on by some of the ensemble, I was pretty clear throughout who was who and which side people were on. Simon Armstrong as Enobarbus gave us all his lines with the right amount of cynicism and humour, while Byron Mondahl as Octavius was a marvellous combination of petulant and shrewd. It’s a shame there isn’t a play in the cannon which lets him show us the full Augustus, as it were.

Alun Raglan as Antony was believable both as the powerful military commander and as the besotted lover, a man who enjoyed the pleasures of the flesh too much for his own good. But the star turn for me was Lucy Black’s Cleopatra. She was beautiful and intelligent, shrewd and manipulative, and very much in love. Her face was rarely still, and the range of expressions she produced gave me a very clear insight into this mercurial character. I noticed the subtleties even when she was buckling on Antony’s armour; she wanted to keep him safe but knew she had to let him go into battle, and it cost her a lot to put on brave face. Her treatment of the unfortunate messenger from Antony was highly entertaining and her death was dignified. I could see why her women were so faithful. I felt I was seeing the woman herself, which doesn’t often happen.

Another great production from this company, and now we have to wait another year for the next. Ah well.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Sign Of The Times – April 2009

6/10

By Tim Firth

Directed by Peter Wilson

Venue: Richmond Theatre

Date: Wednesday 29th April 2009

It’s a while since we’ve been to Richmond theatre and it was nice to be back. According to the program notes, the play started life as a one-act piece for lunchtime diners, was revised for the stage and now has a second act, set five years after the first, to complete the story.

There are two characters; Frank, an older man who’s head of installation at a company that makes illuminated signs and Alan, a young YTS lad, who seems to have no ambition in life other than to play in a rock band and have tea and biscuits on a frequent basis. The first act shows the two men putting up a sign on the roof of the company’s own building. A new retail park is being built on the other side of the main road, so it’s an ideal time to advertise Forshaws work. Only trouble is, the letters are all wrong; they don’t spell Forshaws, and it takes some time for Alan to realise they’re meant to spell ‘For Sale’. That’s when Frank realises he’s not head of installation anymore, and that the absence of the rest of the staff is due to a relocation conference that he’s not been invited to. The act ends with Alan telling Frank to go across the road to get a view of the sign, then rearranging the letters to say ‘Frank’ and lighting it up. It’s a nice gesture, and a crafty piece of design.

The second act is set the other way round – same building, but in the top floor office looking out onto the roof. It’s now an electronics store with lots of individual illuminated letters outside and the usual storeroom jumble plus desk and flipchart inside. When Frank arrives for an interview, he’s amazed to find the deputy assistant manager is none other than Alan. Frank scrapes through the not-too-demanding entrance exam, which involves making a sales pitch for a mid-range toaster, and is rewarded with a name tag, clip-on tie and a chance to shine on the sales floor. Meanwhile Alan practises his next ten minute inspirational lecturette, a pithy, meaningful alphabetical deconstruction of the word ‘pride’ (‘p’ is for… etc.). Frank returns to have his lunch and uses the toaster they were practising with earlier, which he’d taken over to the returned goods department. Unfortunately, the toaster was faulty and smoke is soon pouring out of the next office along. Trapped in Alan’s office and with no reception on the walkie-talkie, things soon get a lot worse. The fire causes a short circuit which blows the fuses on the lights outside, and one of them, the ‘o’, sails across the roof. Trying to stop it, the pair find themselves lassoed by the letter as it continues to spark. It’s live, Frank tells Alan, and with enough volts running through it to fry them both to a crisp. There’s a lovely bit of comedy as Alan uses his mouth to get a special pen-cum-screwdriver out of Frank’s jacket, only to drop it when he responds to Frank’s query, ‘Are you ready?’ Turns out they’re not in danger; Frank was having him on – payback for a similar trick Alan played on him in the first act. The play ends with Frank realising he should have gone to the other electronics retailer over the road for his interview, and Alan deciding to leave with him to get on with his music and art.

It was good fun all the way through, with lots of humour and nice details in the writing and performances. Frank wants to be a writer, and we hear him dictating his spy thriller into a Dictaphone when Alan’s off stage. One of his school friends is now a famous writer, and we eventually find out that a childhood incident when Frank rescued his friend has been successfully used as a source for the other man’s books, while for Frank it seems to be a block. He never had someone rescue him, so he never gets further than that moment in his dictation, desperate to figure out whose hand his hero is clutching. It’s not sentimental, but it is poignant. Alan, on the other hand, is good at his art but lacks the encouragement to go to college and develop his talent.

It’s an interesting and enjoyable odd couple comedy, which still has relevance in today’s job market, sadly. Good performances from both Stephen Tompkinson and Tom Shaw, and a very enjoyable afternoon.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me