Antony and Cleopatra
Barbican Theatre, 18th January 2018
The last instalment, for me, of the Rome season at the Barbican, and so late in the run that it has been and gone. Sorry. Anyway I have to say this was my least favourite of the four productions, though there was still much food for thought.
I think the reason for this is simple. I prefer the other three plays. Titus Andronicus for its over the top, knowing black comedy, Coriolanus for its astonishing insight into pride, the democratic ideal, the mother-son relationship and homo-eroticism and Julius Caesar for, well, everything you will ever need to know about the use and abuse of political power.
The language in these three is flintier, more muscular, more direct. The drama is played out across a broader backdrop even if this is still measured across individual psychology and the relationships between friends, enemies and family. In A&C the language is way more florid, despite the similar source material as JC (Plutarch via Thomas North), and the focus is firmly on the mature lovers. High Baroque not Early Renaissance if you will.
There is a curious ironic, detached quality to our observation of A&C. I am not saying I identify with unhinged sadist and novelty pie maker Titus A, by way of example, but I can sort of see where he is coming from. Elsewhere in Shakespeare the thrill of recognition is never exhausted, no matter how many viewings, but with A&C I can’t escape the performance, the spectacle. That may well be the whole point. There are times where the pompous grandiosity of these two entitled mid-lifers sets me spluttering, internally and, embarrassingly, externally. Certainly Will S has the right words and right scenes to skewer them. But all the poetry and “look at me” gets a smidge wearying. I know that complaining that Shakespeare sometimes has too many words is like saying Mozart has too many notes but the platitude applies.
Of course it could just be that I haven’t come across the right A&C yet. I see the NT is set to stage a production with Simon Godwin at the helm, (who sucked all the meat off the bones of Twelfth Night and Man and Superman at the NT), with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo. If those two get fired up sparks can fly. Let’s hope so.
Designer Robert Innes Hopkins here chooses to go with a look straight out of Cecil B DeMille. Josette Simon as Cleo has more frock changes than I have underpants, including, at one point, sporting her birthday suit. Costume supervisor Sian Harris, and all the unsung heroes who cut and stitch, must have thought Christmas came early, just in greaves alone (google it). There is a big black cat. natch, and I hear Southall high street is now short of kohl. There are even some steamy Roman baths and an impromptu harbourside bar on display. I bet they only ruled out the incense sticks at the first rehearsal. Mind you I get it is tricky to take A&C out of its historical context.
Ms Simon captures Cleo’s unpredictability, grace and caprice but maybe not the extremes of cruelty and vulnerability. Some of her vocal delivery, to use football commentator parlance, “takes the wrong option”. She does have stage presence though, even when brooding on the sidelines. Workaholic Antony Byrne, who knows his way about the Shakespearean stage, has a cursive way of delivering lines and character and a grizzled, martial look about him. Yet, at times, he felt a bit mechanical and MA’s intense fear of shame was not fully realised.
I was never entirely persuaded of the couple’s passion or plotting. There was none of the seemingly spontaneous physicality that Hans Kesting and Chris Nietvelt brought to the parts in the TA Roman Tragedies. That really stank of sex, with Marieke Heebink’s Charmian the …. well I better stop there as I am getting hot and bothered. Alexandria never looked so decadent, and the cropping of action and lines, as well as the translation process, seemed to help me overcome my objections to the play.
I am not sure if Ben Allen’s Octavius here was intended to be quite so limp, and the contrast with David Burnett’s roister-doister Pompey, quite so sharp. Andrew Woodall swapped Caesar for Enobarbus, taking world-weary to a previously untested level. When it comes to ironic commentary on what is going on around him, Enorbarbus has some of the best lines in the play and these were delivered with relish by Mr Woodall, though he does have an uncanny resemblance to my brother-in-law. I am much taken with James Corrigan here playing Agrippa as upright conciliator. Amber James as Charmain and Kristin Atherton as Iras provide sterling support as ego-masseurs-in-waiting to Queen Cleo.
Director Iqbal Khan offers a straightforward account of the play, in line with the staging, and somewhat of a contrast to his previous Shakespeare, where he has mixed it up a bit. That means that each line is pretty clear but the overall rhythm a little baggier than Angus Jackson’s Julius Caesar. There comes a point in many a Shakespeare history play, when the to-ing and fro-ing between locations, and the long line of messengers bearing news, can distract. A&C, nominally a tragedy, can fall into the trap. If your head is filled with contemplation of motive or poetry you won’t see the joins. Here, once or twice, I did.
So there you have it. It seems I was far more taken with Angus Jackson’s Coriolanus and Julius Caesar in this season than consensus, reckon Blanche McIntyre fully got to grips with the uncertain tone of Titus Andronicus and agreed with most that this Antony and Cleopatra was more stately than seductive.