Antony And Cleopatra – September 2012 (2)

9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Janet Suzman

Venue: CFT

Date: Tuesday 18th September 2012

It’s been only two weeks since the opening performance, but this has really come on. The dialogue was razor sharp and the story-telling clear and detailed. I heard for the first time the passing reference Antony makes to Cleopatra’s past relationship with Pompey, as well as the one with Julius Caesar. The tempo was just that bit quicker, and despite an audience which seemed determined not to join in the fun, this was the best performance of this play that I can remember.

The staging was almost entirely as before; the only change was in the Monument scene, where the hoist worked tonight. Instead of pulling Antony up, he was lowered down through the trapdoor in the balcony, strapped into a chair device. Once down, he was laid on the mattress which was then pulled forward a little way so that it rested on the stage trapdoor. The dialogue was altered to reflect the change of direction, and the rest of the scene was the same as before. I did notice one additional minor change after this – the snake delivery man didn’t look at the throne this time, nor register who his customer was.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Antony And Cleopatra – September 2012

7/10 (preview)

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Janet Suzman

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Friday 7th September 2012

This was the very first performance of this revived production. Kim Cattrall played Cleopatra before in substantially the same production in Liverpool back in 2010, with the same director, designer and many of the same cast but with a different leading actor (Jeffrey Kissoon took the role in 2010). The Liverpool Playhouse doesn’t have the thrust stage of the Festival Theatre, of course, so changes must have been made to the design, and it’s impossible to say how much the intervening two years has added to the cast’s understanding, so I’ll just concentrate on our experience of this production.

First, the set: from the publicity photos on the Liverpool Playhouse website, I would guess that the basic design is largely unchanged, though presumably the balcony comes further forward than before. A wall of bricks at the back, with a few window arches to break the monotony, had several tall screens in front of it, with the gaps creating doorways; towards the end a complete row of screens blocked the wall off altogether. In front of these was a curved balcony, supported by two pairs of metal pillars down which ran ladders. The open metalwork had simple lines, with a shiny black reflective surface. The floor was also shiny and black in a tiled effect, with a reddish circle in the middle. From the ceiling hung a number of eastern-style lamps; these were lowered at the start, to show we were in Egypt, and raised out of the way for the non-Egyptian scenes. A rectangular trapdoor was well used throughout the performance, particularly to bring up furniture for the various locations and also to remove Enobarbus’s body. The lighting changed significantly from scene to scene, creating a strong sense of location, and while the scene changes were sometimes a little on the slow side, on the whole they kept the pace up reasonably well; this is one aspect that will undoubtedly improve with practice.

The casting was interesting. The Egyptians were almost all played by black actors, with one Indian actor playing the soothsayer and Kim Cattrall as Cleopatra. I reckoned this was to show that the Ptolemies were actually Greek rulers, not native Egyptians. The Romans were all white, and for once this non-colour blind casting was very appropriate. Apart from Jeffrey Kissoon playing Antony, it looks as if this aspect of the casting was similar to last time, and while the style of the costumes was definitely the same, there were individual changes particularly to Cleopatra’s clothes. Kim Cattrall was also playing Cleopatra as a blond this time around; she’d been a brunette before. The costumes were modern for the Romans, with skimpy outfits for the Egyptians and an Indian style get-up for the soothsayer.

The performance began in darkness, with a hissing, whispering sound that made me think of the play’s political contrivances as well as the asps in the final act. I could just make out a figure rising up on a plinth in the centre of the stage, while others were sneaking on round the sides. The music was quite dramatic and when the spotlights hit Cleopatra she was standing on a dais with her back to us, arms outstretched, wearing a golden robe. I have to admit that when the lights shafted down on her, I had a momentary sense that I was watching a horror movie rather than a Shakespeare play, and this effect was strengthened a minute later when she turned around and I could see she was wearing a moulded golden mask – creepy! But I got over it pretty quickly, especially when Demetrius and Philo began their conversation up on the balcony while the rest of the cast stayed frozen down below.

Or almost frozen; during their dialogue Cleopatra turned round and her attendants began to remove her finery – presumably she’d been to a formal function and was now disrobing for some personal time. The final item was the face mask, and after she’d taken it off her dialogue with Antony could begin. She was kittenish, while he (played by Michael Pennington this time) was an old roué who was clearly infatuated with this beautiful younger woman. He capered about, clicking mini castanets, and generally behaving like an old fool, while she indulged and caressed him. Their delivery was clear and it’s nice to be able to hear the dialogue so well but the pace was a little slow, a fault which will again be sorted with a bit more practice.

After Antony and Cleopatra left, Demetrius and Philo finished the scene with their closing comments and departed. Down below, Cleopatra’s attendants had been clearing the stage and so were still present for the next scene with the soothsayer. An Indian actor had been cast in this role as with the 2010 version, and this soothsayer took on other jobs as well. For now, he simply looked briefly at each woman’s hand and then closed it up; there was little reaction to seeing their fates and he remained smooth, unruffled and courteous throughout.

Cleopatra arrived on the balcony with a black shawl over her head. She quickly left when Antony approached, and he heard the messengers on the main stage. Enobarbus’s comments about the women were again a little slow-paced, but we started to warm up with his comments about seeing Cleopatra die so often. That business done, Cleopatra returned and this time I could see how her line “I am sick and sullen” was an instruction to her servants so they could follow her lead in whatever playacting she had chosen. And just as well, as her tendency to collapse meant her servants had to be quick to hold her up. Mind you, she was soon on the floor, then up again, then back on the ground, and changed from sickness to anger in the blink of an eye. Antony was getting more and more frustrated that she wouldn’t listen to him, but when he did get his news out, including the information that Fulvia was dead, Cleopatra still turned it back on him, chiding him for not showing more sadness at the death of his wife. (Honestly, women!) He had almost left the stage before she called him back to say “something”, and her gentleness led to their reconciliation before his departure.

In Rome, Octavius wore a suit, while Lepidus was in formal military gear as I recall. Martin Hutson played Octavius last time as well, and his performance showed a lot of detail which was presumably based on the earlier run. His expressions were a little on the large side for this space and gave him a comical aspect, a bit like his Prince John in The Heart Of Robin Hood earlier this year, but his performance worked well in terms of the play as a whole. I think he was referring to papers in his hand for some of this speech; he certainly did so later on, after the whipped messenger had returned. His lines “this common body, like to a vagabond flag upon the stream, goes to and back, lackeying the varying tide, to rot itself with motion”, a disparaging comment upon the fickle nature of the plebeian class in Rome, was addressed in the audience’s direction, heaven knows why. He left the stage before the end of the scene, and Lepidus had to call him back so he could plead to be kept in the intelligence loop.

Down came the lamps again and we were back in Egypt. Cleopatra was lying back on the couch with her feet in Charmian’s lap. Mardian and Iras were sitting by the front of the stage, and Mardian was occasionally strumming his lute (or similar) and singing explosively to make Iras jump, which she did, as well as giggling. It wasn’t a pleasant sound, and Cleopatra soon shut him up. I did wonder, given that she was a queen, why she didn’t have musicians who were more to her liking, but who knows what goes on in the corridors of power? And with the casting emphasising that Cleopatra was Greek rather than Egyptian, I suspected that she may have felt the need to have an Egyptian musician on the payroll to reassure her subjects that she was part of their culture, regardless of her own preferences. I’m not sure if it was Alexas who brought the news about Antony or another messenger, but the dialogue was still good and clear, so this time I heard the lines about the “twenty several messengers”  which made sense of Cleopatra’s following comments. Charmian was so annoying, going on about Julius Caesar instead of praising Mark Antony, and then Cleopatra left to write yet another letter.

Menecrates became Menas for this production, and he and Pompey stood on the balcony for their discussion. Varrius arrived below, and I think Pompey went down one of the ladders to meet him. It was the first time someone had done this, and there was a loud noise as the bar protecting the actors from falling off the balcony was rattled back to give Pompey access to the ladder. This was a minor distraction, and hopefully they’ll find some way to do this more quietly during the previews. I got the gist of this scene, but the dialogue wasn’t as clear as elsewhere.

For the next scene in Rome, a table and some chairs were set up in the middle of the stage. A tray with two carafes and some glasses was placed on the table and someone [Lepidus] poured drinks for the two main guests. A glass of water was placed on the left of the table for Octavius, and a glass containing a red liquid on the right, for Antony. Lepidus and Enobarbus were chatting while this was going on, and then Caesar and Antony arrived, each coming on from their side of the stage and bristling at the other. They moved to the table, and Lepidus, standing by the middle chair, tried to bring them together with his speech. They unbent enough to pronounce the basic civilities, but when Caesar said “sit”, Antony refused, saying “sit, sir”, and they had a mini confrontation over who would sit first. Octavius lost out, and tempers were soon rising again over the rebellion by Fulvia and Antony’s brother. Various matters were raised by Octavius and Antony dealt with them all, rebuffing Enobarbus when he made his comment about borrowing “one another’s love for the instant”. Agrippa’s suggestion of the marriage between Antony and Octavia didn’t seem to be instigated by Octavius this time, and when the question was put to Antony he took his time, draining the wine glass before giving his circumlocutory answer. Again, Lepidus was almost left behind when Octavius and Antony hurried off to Antony’s wedding.

Enobarbus’s description of Cleopatra was well done, and then Octavius, Antony and Octavia entered for a very short scene. One more change to the Liverpool production; CFT had sprung for an extra actress to play Octavia, instead of Pompey having to double the part. The soothsayer was on the balcony, and gave Antony the warnings about Octavius, after which Antony made it clear that this was a political marriage only; he would be back with Cleopatra the first chance he got.

I think the next short scene with Agrippa, Maecenas and Lepidus was dropped, and we were back in Egypt again. Mardian’s music was still not to Cleopatra’s liking, hence her quick change of mind when he turned up with his instrument. The messenger arrived, and had the usual difficulty delivering his message, thanks to Cleopatra’s constant interruptions. When she said “there is gold”, she indicated Alexas who was holding a folder and just looked at her. When she offered more gold, he reacted by shaking his head and turning away – apparently the coffers were empty, or else he was upset that she was squandering her wealth on so many undeserving people; either way it was amusing. Her servants had to haul her off the poor messenger after she heard the bad news, but once she recovered herself she started to show some of the nobility of a queen.

The next scene had Pompey and his men on the balcony and the rest below.  Again, Pompey wasn’t entirely clear, but his emotional reaction to the memory of his “noble father” was. He turned and sobbed for a bit on the back railing, and I was surprised to find that Octavius’s line “take your time”, which sounded like a modern insertion, is actually in the text. Pompey came down a ladder during the dialogue – I think it was when he was spelling out the terms of the proposal – and was on the stage when he and Mark Antony shook hands.

After the leaders left to feast together, Menas and Enobarbus had their private chat which made it clear that Octavius and Antony would be at war before long. The others then returned – the servants’ dialogue was cut – and in all the activity I didn’t see Octavius cleaning the top of the barrel or box he was going to sit on. Fortunately, Steve spotted this action; it’s good to have two pairs of eyes at these times. With his suit and business-like manner, Octavius was well established as a prissy politician, very different from Antony, the grizzled veteran of many a battle. Their difference was emphasised in this scene, with Octavius very reluctant to drink, then not able to keep it down, then standing on the table to announce that he was leaving, then nearly falling off it as he made to leave. Antony helped him down, and it was all nicely done.

The rest of the feast was fine, with Lepidus definitely the worse for wear, and enough reaction from the others to indicate the humour of the crocodile description. Menas took Pompey to the front of the stage for their little chat, and the song may have used the lyrics in the text – I didn’t hear them well enough. I don’t remember the next scene with Ventidius explaining the danger of a lieutenant outperforming his general, although it may not have been clear what was going on; either way, Enobarbus and Agrippa were soon back on stage, making fun of Lepidus and his fawning over Antony and Octavius. Octavia’s leave-taking followed on, and when she broke off her line I thought at first she’d forgotten it, but she was just in character.

Back in Egypt, Cleopatra interrogated the messenger about Octavia. He did his best to please this time, but his guess at Octavia’s age (thirty) was received in stony silence. The rest of his comments made Cleopatra happy and she did a better job of twisting the information to her liking than Malcolm Tucker. Two short scenes showed the start of the conflict between Antony and Octavius; in the first Antony agreed to let Octavia go to Rome to attempt to broker a peace between the two leaders, while in the second Enobarbus and Eros discussed the latest state of play, informing us that Lepidus had been disposed of. These scenes felt bitty, because the changeovers took too long compared to the length of the scene, but they did get across the important information. Octavius and his men were on the balcony while they discussed Mark Antony’s behaviour in Egypt, but Octavius came down one of the ladders once his sister arrived and they took the interval after this scene.

When they restarted, Cleopatra came on dressed for war, arguing with Enobarbus over her participation in the imminent battle. Her armour seemed to consist of a golden breastplate and not much else, and since this piece of equipment was shaped like a naked female chest it was no surprise that Canidius, who arrived with Antony, spent most of the scene staring at the two round bulges in her armour.

Despite the protestations of his men, Antony was determined to fight at sea while Cleopatra seemed more like a bimbo than a queen, supporting her man with no regard for reasoned arguments. The next scenes were also short but as they alternated between the stage and the balcony they seemed to flow better. I also felt that the cast looked more confident in the second half, as if they’d started to get a feel for the space. We learned of Cleopatra’s flight from the battle and that Antony followed her, and then we saw the man himself, discouraged and disheartened, telling his men to take his treasure and leave. As they left, Cleopatra crept on from the back of the stage, wrapped in a black cloak, and again they were reconciled.

The soothsayer rather than the schoolteacher brought Antony’s message to Octavius, who was again on the balcony at this point. Seeing that the man was a foreigner, Octavius leant forward and spoke slowly and loudly, in a patronising manner. It was very funny, and when Octavius had finished with his instructions there was a pause and then Octavius, with prompting, did the anjali mudra (hands held together in front of the chest) to which the soothsayer responded and left. Octavius then sent Proculeius to seduce Cleopatra away from Antony.

In Alexandria, Enobarbus and Cleopatra were joined by Antony and the soothsayer to discuss Octavius’s offer. Thidias arrived to speak to Cleopatra, and she was paying close attention to everything he said while she calculated her best move in the situation. She was only too happy to agree to the idea that Antony had forced her into his bed, and Enobarbus quickly left to inform Antony what was going on. Antony’s rage led to Thidias being whipped by Antony’s men, while Cleopatra kept quiet, observing the scene during Antony’s temper tantrum. She soon had him eating out of her hand again, and when she mentioned “it is my birthday”, Antony clapped his hand to his mouth, the traditional gesture for a man who’s forgotten a woman’s birthday.

Octavius was again reading a letter for the next scene and referred to it as he listed Antony’s insults. I did think he could have gestured elsewhere for the whipped messenger to suggest he’d actually spoken to the man, but it didn’t make much difference overall. Antony’s dismal speech to his servants was fine, and then the soldiers entered both on the balcony and below for the strange music scene, often dropped. Cleopatra helped to put on Antony’s armour next, and managed to buckle on a whole kneepad without breaking a nail.

Again the scenes came thick and fast. Antony learned that Enobarbus had left and sent him his treasure, while Octavius ordered that Antony’s former troops be put in the front of the battle, and as he spoke these lines he looked directly at Enobarbus who had already come on stage and stood below him. Then Enobarbus was told that his treasure had arrived and headed off to die. Antony and his men came on stage, rejoicing at their victory, and when the soldier he commended to Cleopatra was given her hand, he tried to sneak a second kiss but Antony snatched her hand away first – very possessive, this chap.

Enobarbus’s death scene was staged with a shallow sunken area in which he laid himself before dying, so his body was easily removed under cover of darkness. Even shorter scenes now, and the actors hardly had time to leave the stage between them, so dramatic changes of lighting helped to make each scene different. The battle lost, Antony was in a rage (again) with Cleopatra, and she slunk off while he called for Eros.

The road to the monument was along the balcony, with Mardian being sent to give the message of Cleopatra’s death, and when Antony heard this news he went for the assisted suicide option. Unfortunately, while he stood, bracing himself against one of the balcony’s pillars, Eros demonstrated the unassisted suicide option and stabbed himself in the guts. Call me picky if you like, but I don’t believe in the stab-yourself-in-the-guts-and-die-instantly trick. After all, Antony botched his own suicide and lived for quite a lot of lines afterwards, so why shouldn’t Eros?

However, to get back to the play, Antony did his best by jamming the knife into one of the joints of the pillar and then ran onto it, but he wasn’t successful and lay on the ground, groaning. His soldiers refused to finish him off and one of them took Antony’s knife to Octavius – not the actual killing weapon as far as I could see. The next messenger from Cleopatra arrived too late, as usual, and they didn’t seem to make much of this moment which can be quite funny.

When we first saw the set, we reckoned we knew where the monument scene would be played, but as it turned out we were completely wrong. There were two men on the balcony before the scene started; they did some work with wires and hooks and opened up a trapdoor in the balcony floor, but something must have gone wrong because the hooks were taken up again, the trapdoor closed and the men left the balcony, while Cleopatra and her staff came on to the stage from the right hand side. There was just enough of a climb to explain the need to “draw him hither” and they put Antony on a mattress which had been placed on the stage trapdoor. We’re assuming there was some sort of technical hitch tonight, and perhaps we saw Plan B in action; we’ll be interested to see what happens in this scene next time.

They played out the scene on the stage, with Antony held in Cleopatra’s arms till he died. She then said her lines and stayed kneeling beside his body, head down, arms across her chest, unmoving. Her women were concerned that she had died too, but she was just overwhelmed by her loss.

Up on the balcony Octavius was still micro-managing everything, and when Antony’s man turned up with the knife, Octavius was terrified and lunged to the far side of the balcony to stay away from him. Once Octavius realised that Antony was dead he came down the ladder and took the knife himself, wiping it clean before the end of the scene as he invited the soldier who had brought it to go to his tent to hear his version of history. The messenger from Cleopatra was Alexas, and Octavius sent Proculeius to secure Cleopatra for his triumphal march through Rome.

In her Monument, Cleopatra had indeed learned some lessons about the transitory nature of power. Dressed in simple black, she was cool towards Proculeius, though she bowed low to him to demonstrate her submission to Caesar; her women followed her lead. When the Roman guards rushed on, they roughed up the women and stabbed Mardian. When Dolabella arrived, he dismissed Proculeius and the guards and they left, taking Mardian’s dead body with them. Dolabella was much more sympathetic, and Cleopatra soon knew the truth about Octavius’s intentions.

When Octavius himself was announced, Cleopatra and her women all bowed down in a semi-circle with their veils over their faces, making it impossible to tell who was who. Octavius asked “which is the queen of Egypt?”, and Dolabella walked over to stand beside Cleopatra. They included the treasury section, with Alexas as the treasurer, and he handed Octavius a folder which presumably contained the details of Cleopatra’s wealth, or at least those parts she was willing to admit to. Octavius possibly handed the folder back to Cleopatra when he told her “still be’t yours”, but she wasn’t fooled by his charm for all her bowing and sweetness towards him.

The asp basket was brought on by a cheerful chap who just wouldn’t stop talking. He clearly didn’t realise who he was talking to until the end of his dialogue, when he was leaving. Charmian and Iras returned with Cleopatra’s throne, and when he saw this he registered shocked surprise and then hurried off the stage.

Charmian and Iras dressed Cleopatra in the same golden robe she wore at the start, plus her crown – no face mask this time as she needs to speak dialogue. After Iras collapsed, Cleopatra sat on her throne and Charmian placed the basket in front of her. She took the first asp and placed it on her breast, and when she took the second snake she placed it on the other side of her breast so that when she died she was sitting there with her arms folded over her chest. Charmian had to grab the basket quickly after the guard came in, but managed to get the asp out in time, and then Octavius finished the play. I wasn’t sure if the look he gave Dolabella meant that he suspected his involvement in Cleopatra’s death.

There’s more to come with this production, and I’m confident it will be much stronger when we see it again in a couple of weeks’ time. The pace will undoubtedly be quicker, and the cast will be used to the space and be judging their performances better. Tonight they were simply too big, presumably to make sure they carried to the back of the auditorium, but as we found from The Deep Blue Sea last year it’s amazing how well small details can travel in this theatre, and with a play like this which combines the epic and the intimate, this may be just about the perfect space to perform it in. But it was a good start and an enjoyable performance even at this early stage.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Antony and Cleopatra – July 2010

9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Michael Boyd

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Thursday 1st July 2010

This has really come on. Darrell D’Silva now has both hands working fully, and with the extra experience his performance as Antony shows much greater assurance and authority. He’s the passionate military man, loving life to the full, and with admirable qualities which inspire devotion in his men. However, he isn’t as politically astute as either Cleopatra or Caesar, and that, rather than his infatuation with Cleopatra, seems to be the root of his downfall in this production.

John Mackay’s Caesar is even more the politician. He’s always in his suit this time – I think he wore fatigues during the battles last time – and the subtle suggestion that Caesar himself is making the marriage proposal via Agrippa, which we picked up on in the understudies run, has developed into a full-blown political manoeuvre now, with Caesar clearly tipping the wink to Agrippa while declaring, in all pretend innocence, that ‘if I knew of….’. As we were sitting by the walkway tonight, I could see the smirk on Caesar’s face as he left the meeting, together with an expression of relief – he seemed to think that bringing Antony into the family would solve a lot of problems.

I mean no disrespect when I say that Kathryn Hunter was just as good as Cleopatra. It’s a measure of her acting skills that her performance back in April was much more developed, so there were fewer obvious changes tonight, although with the stronger output all round, she had more to play against. I know there are murmurings about the ‘courageous’ casting decisions for this production, but personally speaking, both Steve and I find this portrayal believable and powerful. So there.

Some bits I hadn’t noted before: the blue sheet before the first sea battle was pulled out through the doors, while the overhanging blue sheet was pulled back after the battle. The play started with Cleopatra kneeling centre stage, declaiming a couple of lines. Antony joined her, and while they were in a serious clinch, the two Romans entered to speak the opening lines proper.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Antony And Cleopatra – April 2010

Experience: 7/10

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

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

Antony and Cleopatra – May 2006

6/10

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