By William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Boyd
Venue: Courtyard Theatre
Date: Tuesday 13th April 2010
This is a pretty impressive standard for an early preview performance to set – here’s hoping that the next time we see it we enjoy it as much, if not more.
It was easy to recognise the Michael Boyd touch tonight, even before I checked the program for the director. The large, curved drum sticking out into the stage space, the curved boards on the floor echoing that shape, the use of ringing chimes to highlight certain words (though I’ve no idea what the connection was this time – it was much more straightforward during the Histories) the emphasis on prophecy and well-depicted battle scenes, though fortunately without the gore should attend it. And the story came across clearly, and with much better balance than I’ve seen before, the recent SATTF production notwithstanding.
The set had the industrial drum shape at the back, on two levels, and with various doors. At the start, a large piece of blue fabric was spread from the centre of this drum at the top out to the sides, with the corners being suspended from the ceiling. This was removed at some point, but the fabric reappeared when Cleopatra welcomed Antony back from his victorious battle. She stood on the upper platform, with the cloth draped round her and falling to the ground. There was also a platform which could be thrust forward between the lower doors, and served as the Monument (of course) as well as another vantage point from time to time. There were posh chairs, basic chairs, and at the end, a couple of suitcases and a trunk which formed Cleopatra’s throne for the final death scene.
The costumes were contemporary, which meant soldiers could report news they were hearing through their earpieces, and guns were as much in evidence as swords. When Cleopatra was buckling on Antony’s armour, it was modern-day webbing with all the boxes on it that she was trying to sort out. Personally, I think this worked very well and I wasn’t troubled by any anachronism, though no doubt there will be complaints from some quarters (there were, in the interval). Cleopatra’s costumes were not just modern but sumptuous, and she had a new set of clothes for each scene which really underlined her status. Mind you, her servants, Charmian and Iras, were changing as often, and into co-ordinated outfits, while even Octavia had more than one ensemble to draw on for her part. Impressive.
So to the staging. The whole balance of the play was completely different from any production I’ve seen before. Instead of focusing heavily on the two central characters, this version took a wider look at the whole picture, giving more attention to all the characters, and showing the political context clearly. The love affair Antony and Cleopatra are carrying on is doomed within this context, as the ambition of Octavius Caesar could only have been restrained by an Antony who was on the ball.
Darrell d’Silva played Antony with his hand bandaged from a recent injury, and had his arm in a sling as well. We’d heard that last night’s performance had been a free one, intended as a run-through for his understudy, but that Darrell had insisted on playing the part himself. His performance will undoubtedly be helped when his hand is better, but that’s not a criticism of his efforts tonight.
The sea battle was staged in a very imaginative manner. The people involved on each side came walking slowly on from opposite corners in battle fatigues (sand colour for Antony, blue for Caesar). Each carried a paper boat held above their heads. At first, I found this funny and absurd, but as they continued with their stately progress across the stage to confront the opposition, with Antony’s fleet executing some deft twirls in the process, it became more engrossing, and I decided it was a very good way to show something as unstageable as a sea battle. When the two sides came together, most of the combatants screwed up their paper ships and threw them over their heads into the audience (one landed on us), and then got stuck in to the fighting. Cleopatra and her girls, however, keeping their ships intact, turned and moved slowly away, causing Antony to follow and abandon the battle. It was a very clear demonstration of what went on, and contributed to my greater understanding of the story this time around.
The feasting scene worked very well, I thought. Lepidus was clearly drunk, and even Caesar enjoyed the way Antony made fun of him with his non-description of a crocodile. When Menas and Pompey have their little chat, everyone else was moving in slow motion, carrying on the party.
Tonight we got to see the scene where Ventidius tells us of his success against the Parthians. There was a captive on the upper level of the drum with a bag over his head to illustrate the point, and the comments about how risky it can be for the lieutenant to outdo his general came across very clearly. I don’t know if we’ve ever seen this bit before; the way it was staged it felt like a completely new scene. They also included the scene where some soldiers on guard duty see a light and follow it off stage.
There was no asp merchant – the basket was simply stored somewhere, and Charmian went under the stage to retrieve it. This worked well, as this production wasn’t so strong on the emotional side, so injecting humour at this point wouldn’t have helped.
John Mackay as Octavius gave a very good performance. He got across the ruler’s coldness and lack of the social skills that made Antony a great general. Still, Octavius has the wit to see clearly where his advantage lies, and doesn’t hesitate to take every opportunity to improve his situation. Antony is so besotted with Cleopatra that his judgement goes completely. He even tells Cleopatra to trust Proculeius, when he’s definitely Caesar’s tool. There was a nice bit of humour when the news comes to Antony that Cleopatra’s not actually dead. He reacted with a resigned sigh that suggested he was really kicking himself for believing the lie.
Octavius Caesar and Antony each used the audience during a speech, Antony at the start of the second half, when he was telling his men to leave and save themselves, and Octavius when he was trying to persuade us that he’d been scrupulously fair and moral in all his dealings. It was a good start to second half – quiet, but Darrell d’Silva held the stage, and got the energy going again very quickly.
Greg Hicks was good as the soothsayer, a nice straightforward performance, and Paul Hamilton was very good as the hapless messenger who incurs the wrath of Cleopatra for telling the truth. He learned the error of his ways, though, and lied convincingly the second time around. Even so, he still got off stage as fast as he could afterwards, despite her smiles. I was aware for the first time how Shakespeare contrasts Antony’s approach and Cleopatra’s. He wants the truth, however unpleasant – she wants to hear only good news.
Another contrast I was aware of was between the choices made by Ventidius and Enobarbus. Ventidius shows the military choice, that Antony has lost his judgement. Enobarbus shows the personal choice, based on Antony’s nobility.
There was a lot more to this production that I just can’t note up in time. The overall impression was of a very fresh version, with lots of energy and many fascinating details. Roll on performance two.
© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me