April 13, 2006, by Peter Kirwan

Antony & Cleopatra (RSC) @ The Swan

APRIL 13TH 2006 (backdated)


Well, as opposed to ‘Romeo and Juliet’, Doran’s ‘Antony & Cleopatra’ was a very traditional production, but very, very good. It says something that for its three hours length, I didn’t even notice that I was standing, the time just flew.

Whereas the cast of ‘Romeo’ were dwarfed by their set and design, ‘Antony’ was a very cast-oriented production. The highlights were, of course, the two big names, Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter. From their first scene, where the two ran about giggling like small children, to the emotional climax of Antony’s death, the two held attention whenever they were onstage.

The humour of the play was brought out far more than I’d expected, often to poignant effect. Walter’s hint of brattishness betrayed a queen led by the heart rather than the head, and her scenes with the Messenger were among the funniest things I’ve ever seen at the RSC, as the young man tried desperately to judge her mood. Stewart’s laughter, on the other hand, gradually evolved from genuine joy to a more strained way of coping with mounting adversity, rarely betraying to his enemies- or even to his love- any doubt about his coming victory.

The production didn’t just hinge on the two leads, though, and I do hope the critics remember to mention the other highlights of the production. One pleasant surprise was the spectacular Peter de Jersey, who had lead roles in ‘Sejanus: His Fall’ and ‘Believe What You Will’ last season, standing in at short notice as Pompey for Ariyon Bakare, who recently broke his leg. de Jersey’s Pompey was a powerful and noble soldier, whose short stage time was particularly compelling. Coupled with an Octavius who was visibly shaking during his first meeting with Antony, but later gained confidence, and a deeply troubled Enobarbus, there were fantastic performances to be found in every scene.

One of the most impressive scenes was the very ‘manly’ drinking scene, wherein Antony, Octavius, Lepidus, Pompey and their men drank, danced and sung. On the stage it became very real, not unlike the aftermath of a university rugby team social- soldiers daring each other to down bowls of wine, people standing on shaking platforms trying not to fall over and, of course, much laughter at the expense of the quickly-drunk Lepidus. It was funny and terrifying at the same time, with the constant fear that with one mistake the bonding exercise would descend into all-out war. It’s a bizarre thing, how sometimes even those scenes you normally wouldn’t think twice about can have such an impact live.

It’s to my deep regret that I only managed to get a standing ticket for this performance. Although fortunately several of the characters spent time reclining on the floor, meaning their faces were tilted upwards, for most of the play I could see very little facial expression or subtlety. The performances were still wonderful, but I did get the strong feeling that I was missing out on a large part of the experience. I was also very confused at the start looking for Patrick Stewart- looking for a bald head, it was a long time before it clicked that he was there, just wearing a wig!

The other thing worth mentioning is Tim Mitchell’s lighting design. There was very little set for this production, with most of the major changes in location marked by changes in the lighting wash. Very subtle, but very effective, especially in a play that moves between so many exotic locations. The set itself mostly conformed to the wooden boards and struts of the Swan Theatre, with wooden platforms, ropes and exotic drapes conjuring a world of war machines, clashing cultures and

This was, frankly, the RSC at the top of their game- a traditional delivery with powerful and resonant performances, but also an innovative use of design and space. The critics have so far unanimously loved it, and I would recommend anyone who reads this goes and sees it- except, of course, you’ll be lucky to get a ticket!

Posted in Theatre review