This year's season at Shakespeare's Globe theatre is entitled 'The Edges of Rome', and we've already had excellent versions of two of Shakespeare's Roman plays: 'Titus Andronicus' and 'Coriolanus'. Now the Globe's new artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole, is again at the helm to orchestrate Shakespeare's take on a tragic love story - arguably the most famous love story the world has ever known - 'Antony and Cleopatra'. But in this version of what is a truly riveting story, Dromgoole has only managed to get it half right. Casting Frances Barber as Cleopatra was an excellent choice, because Barber is a fiery Egyptian Queen whose rages and tempers terrify, her charms beguile and her frequent change of mind deliver much mirth for the audience. However, Dromgoole obviously had a bad hair day when casting Antony.
The plot is rather more complex than a love story might suggest. And to make matters worse, Shakespeare telescoped the events - which actually stretched out over more than a decade - so it's occasionally difficult to follow what's happening over such a lengthy time span. And on this score, neither the direction nor the acting helped clarify events, or injected real passion or intrigue, because apart from Barber's performance, the delivery was often mechanical and mundane.
Essentially, Cleopatra's ex-lover, Julius Caesar, has been assassinated and the political void has been filled by three men, the Triumvirs, who rule the vast Roman Empire as a kind of joint emperor. Of course, anyone who knows power-hungry politicians won't be amazed to know that this arrangement couldn't last, and by the end of the play, the Romans are up to their tragic togas in bloody and bitter civil war.
One of the Triumvirs, Mark Antony, is given the task of keeping the Eastern Empire in check and expanding it. But even at the start of the play, Antony is already besotted by Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, who's desperate to cling on to her throne in the face of the proximity of the immensely powerful Romans, but also seems to have a genuinely intense passion for Antony too. Back in Rome, Octavius Caesar, one of the other Triumvirs, is beginning to think that all's not well with the love-sick Antony, who's thus forced to go back to Rome and patch things up with his joint rulers by marrying Caesar's sister, but that sparks off Cleopatra's rage when she hears about it. From there it's really a slippery downhill slope into civil war, and since Caesar seems to have the best cards in the deck - 'the very dice obey him', as one observer notes - it's obvious that Antony and his vitriolic, love-sick queen are doomed.
Evocative and eerie music has been quite a feature of this season at the Globe, and it's centre stage again here. And as before, there's a pretty strange collection of instruments on display with names that sound almost as bizarre as they look, for example shawm, pigborn, tupan, and bendir. But it not only adds to the atmosphere, it also lends even more in the way of authenticity to this truly superb venue, which provides a delightful way to watch Shakespeare's plays, particularly when a light, refreshing, mid-summer breeze drifts over the auditorium. To match the music, there's haunting singing from Musical Director Belinda Sykes, as well as the company, and as has become customary at the end of performances, there's dancing from everyone come the curtain calls.
The problem with 'Antony and Cleopatra' is that it follows in the footsteps of two inventive and excellent productions at the Globe this year. Setting an incredibly high standard in these earlier works, Dromgoole has admirably notched-up our expectations of the capabilities of this venue. But therein lies the catch, because we've now come to expect more. And although Barber's formidable portrayal of Cleopatra is undoubtedly the highlight of the evening, the support is professional but unexceptional, and at times rather dull and lacklustre.
Nicholas Jones disappointed on two counts. First, he seemed far too old for the part of Antony. This brought embarrassed sniggering from the audience when Jones kissed Barber's Cleopatra rather amorously - the kind of reaction kids might display if they witnessed ageing parents in a similar clinch. In fact, when Antony and Cleopatra met, there was a 14 year age-gap between them, and Antony was only in his early 40s, a man in his prime I would think. But Jones also seemed too dignified and statesmanlike for a fighting 'bruiser' like Mark Antony, and his outstretched arm gestures were repetitive, frequently inappropriate, and surprisingly camp. In all, it seemed grossly mismatched casting given the power and intensity of Barber's endearing Cleopatra.
It's often claimed by Shakespearian scholars that this play is a tragedy without a villain. Nevertheless, Jack Laskey managed a pretty good job of it as Octavius Caesar. With slicked-down hair, the gangling frame of a teenager and doom-laden eyes, he vied for attention with the asp in his almost snake-like appearance. But he lacked the hissing delivery to go with it - appearing at the end rather like a fairground automaton than someone who was actually upset at the loss of a great and noble Roman soldier.
There's considerable well-planned humour in this production - particularly when Cleopatra sets about a messenger in a frenzied attack - followed-up with some terrific facial gestures from the same messenger in a later scene. But some of the humour is unintentional, and in any case, humour is only one part of this play. To work effectively, 'Antony and Cleopatra' needs exceptionally fine performances from two formidable actors in the title roles. In this production, there's just not enough passion and power to seduce the audience into believing this was the greatest love story of all time. In fact, it turns out to be a rather unbelievable one, if not a little 'sad'. Let's hope that Dromgoole's Globe hasn't run out of steam so early in the season.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICK CURTIS for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "this production is notable mostly for Barber's over-the-top performance, and for partially reinventing one of the world's great stories of love and war as a comedy. " ALASTAIR MACAULAY for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "Refreshingly brisk...Occasionally it’s stirring. But never moving." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Frances Barber’s superb Cleopatra...a fluent, pacy, decently enough acted affair."
Production photos by John Haynes