Emma Jay Thomas
Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter give compelling performances in Gregory Doran’s production of Antony and Cleopatra, now transferred from Stratford to London for a short run.
W H Auden said that if he could save just one of Shakespeare’s plays, it would be this one. I have to disagree with him. It’s one of the few in the canon that I could live without. It is full of rich language but is surprisingly unengaging dramatically. I had to work hard to banish thoughts of Carry on Cleo from my mind at certain points in the evening. It comes close to melodrama at times and there’s some acting that verges on the hammy.
That aside, this is a pacy production of one of Shakespeare’s more difficult works. The themes of the play emerge as the evening progresses the contrast between masculine and feminine and between the political and personal come through particularly strongly. There is plenty of swaggering machismo on show, with a cocky and virile Antony from Patrick Stewart contrasting particularly well with John Hopkins’ twitchy and seething Octavius.
I greatly enjoyed the first encounter between the two of them a game of one-up-manship that raises some unexpected laughs. Doran brings out the humour of the play more than usual, with a comical Lepidus from James Hayes (difficult at times to remember that he is one of the three “world-shapers” who form the ruling triumvirate) and the messenger scenes played full out for laughs.
Above all this is a love story. Stewart and Walter’s relationship is full-bloodied and stormy. This is no soppy boy meets girl scenario, with Antony ready to marry another woman for political ends and viciously turning on his lover when he believes she has betrayed him militarily. This fine pair of actors bring out all the highs and lows of a couple acting out their love affair amidst the perils of world politics.
Ken Bones as Enobarbus (a role that Patrick Stewart played memorably at the RSC some 30 years ago) is equally as masculine and confident as his master, making his betrayal of Antony and consequent collapse all the more impressive and moving.
The final scenes of the play the dying Antony hoisted aloft to die in Cleopatra’s arms and then her death by asp are iconic and here are staged boldly and with visual flair.
Adrian Lee’s Arabic sounding music underscores the action effectively, although there’s a strange moment when Antony brings the three musicians out of their corner and uses them as a crowd. It’s a convention that doesn’t happen anywhere else and, with “acting” performances from them that are far from satisfactory, I really wondered why the director had done it.
The same ensemble (sans Walter) will be appearing at the Novello in The Tempest from 22 February and, while Antony and Cleopatra doesn’t represent the very best of the RSC’s current output, I would strongly recommend this of the two.