The relatively confined stage of the Theatre Royal, Haymarket has helped concentrate this production’s emotional and political scope. What may have been lost in heroic grandeur, had the venue been the Barbican, for example, has been gained in intimacy and intensified by the tight blocking and the movement of the action forward. Only rarely, when for example the battle scenes open to reveal odd armoured mannequins in the background, do we sense the worlds well lost and the gigantic military stakes the characters anguish over. Director Michael Attenborough has opted for a chamber suite rather than an orchestral version of the play. His decision to cut scenes and characters, notably Pompey, highlights his view of what’s important: not the public dimensions but rather the personal issues. The danger of such an approach is to diminish the action and stifle Shakespeare’s global concerns. But the advantage is to bring the play warmly into the audience’s sphere of awareness and feeling.
This is not, then, an epic rendering of Shakespeare’s play. Its principal characters do not summon up a bygone age of noble emotions and tragic dilemmas. Everything about the world of these figures has been reduced, including the very voices of the actors. If Sinead Cusack’s Cleopatra is a cello, resonant and stirring, Stuart Wilson’s Antony is a clarinet, darting and supple, but not large, not compelling. It must be said that Cusack’s clarity of diction defeats Wilson’s tendency to swallow syllables and bite off consonants. No more than their voices are their physical movements or their bodies meshed and matched. Cusack is catlike, compact, wiry. Her movements are athletic, never more so than in the striking moment when longing for Antony’s presence she falls backward on her hands in an acrobatic arch. She’s tightly wound from the start, a serpent of old Nile indeed, and anxiety-ridden over her ability to hold Antony. She is not confident of her skill as a seductress, however, and the director has wisely chosen not to attempt to make her one. She moves quickly and stealthily, and is often prone and supine, though not languorous. Hers is a performance of great energy and more than a little apprehension. But this is not a role to which Cusack brings infinite variety, thus rendering problematic Enobarbus’s set-piece description and often even Antony’s professions of love. Her interviews with the messenger, for example, do not convey the spite and hysteria the scenes call for; she fails at fury. She is at her best, though, after Antony’s death. The muted scenes leading to her suicide evince despair rather than daring grandness. So, too, with Wilson’s Antony. He’s a large man, but the odds he plays against do not seem to match his physical presence, decayed though that may be. He does not stride like a colossus, even though the world he lives in is far from morally immense and ought to make him outsized. As the realities of Antony’s fall weigh down upon him, Wilson tries for a herculean response. His voice attempts a variety of registers as his movements are heightened, but the result seems oddly misplaced, as though he's been directed to summon up voices and gestures from earlier eras of heroic theatre. Admittedly it is no easy challenge for a twenty-first century actor to make male honour the terrible source of conflict that Shakespeare’s text invests in the issue. Nor do the contractions of this production make Antony’s wretchedness over losing his reputation altogether lamentable. Thus it is all the more crucial we feel more than a mite of passion between the lovers. Although theirs is a highly tactile association, this couple never seems bonded by the ardour that makes Antony’s choice of Cleopatra, as well as her attempts to keep him, the problems that are worth losing all for.
On the other hand, Roman world that draws Antony repeatedly back is not the lifeless domain that the text and most productions insist upon. Although Tim Mitchell’s expert lighting perhaps the most variegated and nuanced craftsmanship of its kind in recent memory gives a cold and silvery hardness to distinguish Rome from the rich golds, reds, and reds of the Alexandrian scenes, Rome itself is not an entirely unlovely place. Again, Attenborough has chosen to flatten the contrasts and mute the oppositional tones of the locales. Stephen Campbell-Moore plays Caesar with great skill, not as the usual cold fish but rather almost as a leader we might admire for his down-to-earth good sense. His refusal to join in the drinking revelry, for example, seems quite reasonable, not priggish. And his final encomium strikes one as heartfelt, not a hypocritical exercise.
The result is a production less than thrilling, less than valiant. But it is not for that any the less interesting, indeed fascinating, primarily due to Attenborough’s intelligence and pragmatism. He has made a valid interpretative decision: the worlds these characters inhabit are as uninviting and hard of surface as the chaises-longues serving (covered or not) as the Egyptian beds and Roman benches that comprise almost the only features of the set. The realms Antony shuttles between are not capacious, not heroic, not tragic. Both Egypt and Rome have a claustrophobic feel, and he is comfortable in neither. Like Clive Wood’s understated Enobarbus, we are left with a muted melancholy more than a sense of lost greatness. But that is not inappropriate to the play or the world we live in.
Next review by Matthew Fay
The play is Antony and Cleopatra, the production is at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, the RSC's temporary home in the West End. Michael Attenborough does really well with a difficult play, making all the obvious points well, while avoiding any really startling or original approaches.
The play is famously a star vehicle for two mature actors at the top of their game: Glenda Jackson and Alan Howard in the 70s; Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench in the 80s; Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren -- disastrously -- in the 90s. Here we have Sinead Cusack and Stuart Wilson, Cusack returning to the Company with which she has long been associated, and Wilson, sporting wonderful grey dreadlocks, better known from film. A sense-of Fitzgerald-esque doomed glamour permeates the lovers, bathed in rich light and observed with envy by their courtiers. Cusack's theatrical pedigree nonetheless shines through. Her voice is beautiful and clear, and though she is sexy, she perhaps lacks some of the capriciousness of a born Cleopatra. Antony is unfortunately vocally underpowered: he does not quite convince us of his status. But he is clearly in thrall to the serpent of old Nile. Perhaps because of this there is something of an anti-climax about the deaths of the lovers.
If the chemistry is not quite right, the sense of doom surrounding them certainly is. Michael Attenborough chooses to begin with Cleopatra's women massaging Antony's back, while she works on a clay bust suggesting the idea of an Anthony moulded by his passion for Cleopatra. There is something dreamlike and druggy about this Egypt. The sense that Antony's fate is sealed from the first, and that destiny has a large part to play in the action that unfolds is underlined by the wonderfully fruity figure of the Soothsayer, who appears to both lovers at crucial moments, alternately warning or prophesying their doom. In fact, a lasting image is of the Soothsayer intoning solemnly to Cleopatra, "I wish you joy of the worm."
The production is also intelligent in terms of design. The contrasts between Rome and Egypt are emphasised by light and costume: warm colours, purples, gold, fire for Egypt and simple white robes for Rome. If this visual insistence on the separation between the two realms is somewhat cliched, it is certainly justified by the text. Furthermore, there is never any likelihood that Caesar's sister Octavia is going to be glue strong enough to keep the amity between the Romans. A particularly impressive sequence involves the drinking games after the defeat of Pompey, where Caesar's frigidity is well contrasted with Antony's bucaneering spirit. Enobarbus's famous speech the barge she sat in only serves to confirm what we already know. He will never leave her.
Enobarbus is, unusually, played by an actor younger than Antony. His cynicism therefore stems not from his years but from his experience of battle. Unfortunately the director misses the opportunity to emphasise Enobarbus's sentimental conversion at the last by making him a victim of suicide rather than the broken heart in the text. Minor players elsewhere suggest the foolishness of their betters, as when a terrified servant learns to lie rather than tell his mistress the truth about Octavia, Anthony's new wife.
Probably the best thing in this production's favour is the play itself, which contains some of the bard's most memorable lines. Not least Cleopatra's promise that she does not want to survive only to see some "squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness in the likeness of a whore." Not referring to Mark Rylance, I'm sure.
What other critics had to say.....
BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "The production is fluent and pacey......But that gain is bought at the cost of radical cutting....the disappearance of Caesar and Antony’s joint foe, the seadog Pompey, is a bad mistake." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "This remains a good, straight-driving production. It never lets us forget that this is a play as much about self-deception as impenitent passion."
External links to full reviews from newspapers