Antony and Cleopatra
There are plenty of problems with this play for a director and it’s always a surprise to me when the actress playing Cleopatra makes it work. When we hear Enobarbus describe Cleopatra we usually take it as romanticised hyperbole by someone who has been bewitched by her, possibly besotted. Not so here. Enobarbus describes exactly what we have seen. Cleopatra is a creature of ‘infinite variety’. We never quite know what she is going to do or how she is going to behave next. And age has certainly not withered her in any way: she is elegant, charismatic, slim, sexy, dangerous alluring and changeable.
I have to admit that I didn’t really want to see another production of this play. Despite its mixed critical opinions I was smitten by Kathryn Hunter’s amazing physical and vocal performance as Cleopatra in the RSC’s last production. But Josette Simon is equally alluring, though in very different ways. You can see why Antony is so besotted with a middle aged woman who looks thirty. And who wouldn’t be?
Director Iqbal Khan gives us a Cleopatra focussed production with some psychological depth. The extraordinary intelligence and imagination he showed in Much Ado About Nothing is abundantly evident here too. Cleopatra doesn’t just put her robe on at the end; she strips herself bare of earthly trappings before she does so and prepares for the afterlife sans power, sans wig, sans clothes, sans everything mortal as she makes an existential breakthrough from the physical world to mythical timelessness. And the asp, unseen inside her costume as she dies, is a projection of her own physical and spiritual reality rather than an external agent of mortality. And we are never allowed to forget that Cleopatra is an outsider in Egypt; she may command it but she is not of it.
But it is not just the brilliance of Josette Simon’s performance which makes this a must-see production. From the very beginning we are presented with an exciting and vibrant dance, but one which foreshadows a dance of death. And Cleopatra’s ‘fearful sails’ are another dance of death, beautiful to look at but shrouded in empyrean dry ice, paper/cardboard ships which are inscrutable projections whose movements are unpredictable and unfathomable. The sea battle ends with a metaphorical burning ship in the storm and clouds, betokening the crumbling of empires.
Although the story is very clearly told, by downplaying the changes in political allegiance in the play the director highlights an important and contemporary message. When things are rough at home fight foreign wars. Caesar does it; Thatcher did. Mexico, North Korea and Gibraltar are lurking somewhere in the back of my mind. There is no doubt that in political terms Caesar plays his cards right, but this production suggests that Shakespeare filtered through Iqubal Khan is interested in what happens to everyone else.
Robert Innes Hopkins’s design for the production is sumptuous. Following the gorgeous dance opening a bed arises from the trap and we are presented with Egyptian luxury in costumes and cushions, an appropriate theatrical location for Cleopatra’s self-indulgence. There is some fine male flesh and a steam bath in Rome. The architectural background is at a sharp angle in in Egypt but straightens up for Rome, although we slowly notice that it is only almost straight on; there is a suggestion of a skewed society despite its apparent brazenness.
Lepidus (Patrick Drury), Antony (Antony Byrne) and Caesar (Ben Allen) are clearly delineated: the peacemaker, the passionate and the narcisissistic pragmatist. The characters become part of the architectural plan of the play and by the middle we become aware of the parallels between Cleopatra’s narcissism and Caesar’s. His eating grapes as he meets Cleopatra is a wonderful detail, conjuring up ideas about appetite, sensuality and the beast that devours. There are beautiful groups and pictures throughout. The freeze on Pompey’s ship is marvellous.
This production is not to be missed. Neither is Julius Caesar with largely the same extremely strong cast. Come and make your visit even more enjoyable with a stay at Moss Cottage.