By William Shakespeare
Directed by Andrew Hilton
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