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