Perhaps better known to TV viewers for his role as Captain Jean-Luc Picard in 'Star Trek: The Next Generation', Patrick Stewart renews his 40 year association with the Royal Shakespeare Company by taking up the reins of love and power as Mark Antony in this version of Shakespeare's 'Antony and Cleopatra'.
The play opens in Egypt where Mark Antony - one of the (three) triumvirs who now govern the Roman empire - languishes in a state of total besottedness under the spell of Egypt's Queen, Cleopatra. As Antony and his temptress frolic in the desert, there are very different kinds of stirrings back in Rome, because the other triumvirs believe that Mark Antony is welching on promises, and, facing trouble from Pompey and a motley band of pirates, they summon Antony to Rome to straighten things out. But when Antony eventually manages to wrench himself from the amorous Cleopatra, it's not long before he discovers from a soothsayer that he won't be top dog if he pits himself against the other quarrelsome triumvir, Octavius Caesar. With the writing firmly and plainly on the wall - in 6 foot letters, even - it's pretty clear that the pair of desert lovers are not going to survive.
Though it's certainly true that Stewart is still capable of delivering a highly professional, forthright - and in many ways, compelling - performance, the RSC seem to have followed the same kind of dubious casting that marred last year's production of the same piece at the Globe. Now I don't want to appear ageist, but incredibly fit and athletic though he is, Stewart's designation as Antony is stretching credibility rather thin when one considers that Antony was only around 53 when he died, and that Stewart is fast approaching the status of a septuagenarian. I clearly remember audible sniggerings from the audience at the Globe last year when Nicholas Jones's Antony was in a passionate clinch with his Cleopatra. There were no similar mutterings from the well-behaved first night audience on this occasion, but one still had an uneasy feeling that Stewart's Antony was a little past his peak in the romance department. That quibble aside, Stewart's performance is, as ever, highly considered and authoritative, and easily encompasses subtle, and well-honed touches of humour.
On the other hand, Harriet Walter is eminently alluring and extremely funny at times as Cleopatra, and captures the almost frantic, political desperation of a Queen dependent on the fickle nature of men, whilst convincing us of her love for Antony. However, there are occasions when her vocal delivery suddenly plunges into a kind of semi-comic tone that seems oddly out of place.
What's more interesting about this production is the sheer quality of the second rank characters and the support. John Hopkins gave a very finely tuned, almost psychotic characterisation of Octavius Caesar, who seemed on the very brink of breakdown at several junctures, driven by his overwhelming desire for power. But equally, he never left us in doubt as to who would be the victor. Ariyon Bakare also gave a formidable performance as Sextus Pompeius, and Craig Gazey's terrified messenger was a perfect foil as the one who has to bring the bad news to Cleopatra that Antony has married behind her back.
Stephen Brimson Lewis's meagre, but functional set is really a large open space with a gantry above and small galleries to the side. But the back wall has a neat trick to it - with a double kind of 'skin' and an overlay which looks like a disjointed and realigned map of the world, it employs lighting effects to transport us to various locations, such as the politicised Rome and the amorous Egypt, and also provides a very real sense of mood as the tragedy unfolds.
Music is always a key feature in RSC productions, and again like last year's season at the Globe Theatre, they've moved into the realms of musical antiquities with the use of instruments with names that sound more like a collection of farmyard animals from a remote Siberian backwater - eg, zurma, cornu, kaval and duduk. But in spite of their strange-sounding names, the emotively atmospheric contribution they make to the impact of the piece is considerable.
Apart from fringe productions, it seems that the larger companies have now opted for traditional dress rather than forcing Shakespearian characters into dinner jackets, Nazi uniforms and the like. So, Kandis Cook's costume design focuses on the kind of Roman and Egyptian dress that comforts audiences rather than challenges their credulity.
'Antony and Cleopatra' is both satisfying and extremely watchable - everything about it spells quality and professionalism, as indeed one would expect from the RSC. But there's never any sense that it intended taking risks, breaking new ground, or stretching this mesmerising and story to dizzying new heights, or into intriguing new dimensions.
What the critics had to say.....
BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "His Antony [Patrick Stewart) is as good as any you’ll see...Gregory Doran’s RSC production remains clear, direct, pacey." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Superb staging." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Transferred to the larger, traditional Novello stage Gregory Doran's production has sadly lost much of its originality, its intimate focus and forcefulness." SARAH HEMMING for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "Fine Royal Shakespeare Company production." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Excellent production, imported from Stratford's Swan, Patrick Stewart offers the best Antony since Michael Redgrave half a century ago." ALICE JONES for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Gripping production...Harriet Walter and Patrick Stewart are excellent as the eponymous lovers."
Production photo by Pascal Molliere