April 2, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

Antony & Cleopatra (SATTF) @ The Tobacco Factory

Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory have followed a similar format for most of their ten seasons to date, putting on two classic plays a year, one after the other. This tenth anniversary season, though, marks the first time that they have tried to link their two productions into a cohesive whole, with the same ensemble who performed Julius Caesar now going on to that play’s sequel, Antony and Cleopatra. Performed in the same intimate space with a similarly spartan set and Jacobean/Caroline costumes, the plays become a single two-part story tracing the rise and fall of Mark Antony and Octavius Caesar.

Much of Antony’s staging hearkened back to Caesar in its network of candlelit meetings, hushed tones and backroom political maneuvering. Taken together, this sprawling epic evoked modern crime epics from The Godfather to The Wire, particularly in scenes such as the Triumvirate sitting down together in a circle to negotiate territory, their ‘muscle’ hovering behind their chairs. Key to this was Byron Mondahl’s Octavius Caesar. Played older than usual, with paunch and receding hairline, Mondahl played Octavius as a seedy politician finally on the cusp of glory. His treatment of Lepidus was openly scornful, his antipathy to Antony barely concealed, yet he hid behind policies and agreements: his open scream in the council meeting of "You have broken/The article of your oath" saw him use a formal excuse to publicly and emotionally tackle his opponent. Towards the end of the play, as his power became more consolidated, the politician was able to act more aloof, and his condescension to Cleopatra as they finally met was particularly sickening in its falsity. In a lovely moment, he wept over Antony’s sword and made much of touching his foe’s blood; then, once out of public view as he walked off stage, disgustedly rubbed it from his hands

The flipside to Octavius was what might crudely be termed his "daddy issues", made clearer by the opportunity to watch the character’s journey from Caesar. As Pompey and Antony discussed Julius Caesar’s dalliance with Cleopatra, Octavius slowly staggered away, physically sick at what he overheard. In a sense, the ghost of the dead Caesar continued to haunt the action, his memory spurring on Octavius’ grasping after control. The ghost was also noticable by its absence from Antony’s thoughts, continuing the path that the character had begun to take towards the end of the previous production; it seemed that Antony cared far less about Caesar than about the opportunity his murder provided to advance himself. By the start of Antony, the titular hero had forgotten his dead friend and was revelling in his own comforts, while Octavius was still obsessed with his fallen father.

Into this world of politics, however, entered Lucy Black’s Cleopatra. Her court offered an entirely different kind of environment, a female-dominated haven where the dark-clothed politicians never appeared. This world of brighter colours and laughter approached politics with heart rather than head, governed by Black’s excellent queen. This Cleopatra was unpredictable and inconstant, acting entirely on immediate impulses to the confusion of everyone in the court save her two ladies. This queen was capable of great humour, particularly when alone with her closest servants, but also of great violence, hitting those who displeased her with some force, even Alexas (standing in for Seleucus) in an uncomfortable final parting between the two where she acted as if he had genuinely betrayed her on the matter of money.

Her unpredictability was used to great comic effect in her meetings with the unfortunate messenger who had to report Antony’s marriage to Octavia. Her ferocity and bounty completely disorientated the messenger, who ended up timidly shuffling into the room when subsequently summoned, ready to dart out of her way again. However, he was retained by Cleopatra and ended up wearing her colours, acting as messenger and courtier to her, again demonstrating her mixed regal style of favour and terror.

Alun Raglan remained strong as Antony, maintaining the slightly dishevelled, roguish air that had characterised his appearances in Caesar. This Antony was, like his love, emotionally led, but with less of the openness that defined her actions. Here, it was moments such as his polite, soldierly kiss of her hand that stood out, he sacrificing tenderness for the sake of public show, which was something foreign to Cleopatra. Their growing distance was depicted physically; they first appeared all over each other, rolling on a couch, but the physical distance between them grew throughout, the two occasionally fighting to break through the growing barriers in order to share embraces that were increasingly powerful for their infrequency. Their relative size (he enormous, she tiny) allowed for some fun touches as well, such as his hiding her under his cloak at one point. He died lying in her arms, at which point she too collapsed as if dead, the two bodies lying across each other in their final moment of intimacy.

Antony was dominant in the political scenes, his confidence and physical size overshadowing Octavius and Lepidus. He despised both, but instead of sneering like Octavius he acted out, revelling in his popularity and ability to be the centre of attention. In this, Enobarbus fed his ego, the two both unafraid of consequence or decorum. The drinking scene was key in demonstrating this, with Antony, Enobarbus and Pompey all loud and organising other’s fun, while Octavius drank himself into depression and Lepidus made a fool of himself. Paul Brendan’s Lepidus was particularly wet, a terrified diplomat who was both unaware of and unable to play the political games of the other two. His desperation to fit in wasn’t matched with the requisite strength, and it was clear even from the start that both Antony and Octavius regarded themselves as being in a two-horse race.

Enobarbus, played by Simon Armstrong, was effective enough, providing a heartfelt commentary on the political story through his loyalty, doubts and eventual betrayal. His death was surprisingly moving, a final groan of his former master’s name before collapse providing a suitably blunt end to a blunt soldier. He was best, though, in his earlier scenes of wry comedy, making light of his betters in full confidence of his own position. He was matched by his opposite servants, Catherine McKinnon’s Charmian and Nadia Giscir’s Iras. These two effectively created the environment of Cleopatra’s court by themselves; while Cleopatra acted on whatever emotion was driving her at that particular moment, Iras and Charmian provided the constants of female solidarity, gossip, mutual care and servile deference which Cleopatra alternately drew on. Despite being whatever they needed to be for their mistress, however, both ladies managed to create highly individual characters for themselves; Iras, in particular, was emotionally involved with everything and struggled to control her tears for her queen’s sake, while Charmian took on the elder, more responsible role of guiding her queen through those things that had to be done. By the end of the play, both acted as carers as much as servants, leading Cleopatra gently around in her nightshirt as she wept for Antony.

There was much else to enjoy in this packed production. Jonathan Nibbs’ Soothsayer provided a through link between the two plays, creating a continuous, hunched character who gave out his predictions desperately and without hope for his subjects. Alan Coveney’s Menas was a roguish pirate with scar and earrings who provided the villainous counterpoint to Tom Sherman’s more heroic Pompey, while Paul Nicholson made for an oddly comic Clown, offsetting the final moments in his delivery of the snake.

I think my only disappointment is that it wasn’t possible to watch the two productions in rep with each other, as it would have drawn out the links more clearly and potentially to richer effect – I assume this was for practical reasons. It was also a long production, which at times in the second half threatened to drag, though this was largely relieved by the excellent central performances that maintained interest throughout. A triumph for the Tobacco Factory, and hopefully an experience will encourage more daring from the company in future seasons.

Posted in Theatre review