May 18, 2010, by Peter Kirwan

Antony and Cleopatra (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre

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Michael Boyd’s Antony and Cleopatra follows interestingly from Lucy Bailey’s Julius Caesar, the resident ensemble’s last foray into the Roman histories. While the retention of Darrell D’Silva as Mark Antony may have initially suggested a continuity between the two productions, Boyd’s Antony was in many ways the polar opposite of Bailey’s prequel. Defiantly proud of its bare thrust stage, dominated by Tom Piper’s enormous steel, cylindrical tower (think the Histories‘ iron gateway on steroids), the production relied on little more than Wolfgang Gobbel’s lighting states for indications of setting. Instead, this was a production that prized its performances, and featured the first really standout ensemble acting of the current company.

In choosing to make this a play about characters, Boyd sensitively conflated many of the play’s minor figures, creating characters with longer through lines that an audience could watch develop and invest in. This was most powerful in the case of Katy Stephens’s Eros. Played as a young boy, Eros began the play in Cleopatra’s court laughing and dancing, apparently carefree. The devotion which he bore to Antony was that of son to father: always the first to cheer, never seen with anything less than a determined enthusiasm, even as Antony’s fortunes turned. The change in the character, then, as Antony demanded death of him, was heartbreaking. Forced to confront the reality of the oaths he had earlier naively sworn, Eros shook as he drew his knife, barely comprehending what he was doing. With Antony’s head turned, Eros plunged the knife into his own stomach, falling to his knees and shuddering violently in his master’s arms as Antony caught him. With the audience already invested in the character, his body’s presence became as significant to us as it was to Antony, speaking simultaneously of the bravery and waste of war.

Similarly intelligent conflations were made throughout, most notably by James Gale’s Maecenas taking on Dolabella’s role. Maecenas was here a suited politican who took on an ambassadorial role as Caesar’s right hand (which in turn echoed the importance placed on the meeting by Caesar, who sent his best man rather than a nonentity). In this capacity, he stood in direct contrast to Phillip Edgerley’s cold, bespectacled Proculeius. Luring Cleopatra into a false sense of security with his low voice and nonthreatening demeanour, he invited trust before hidden soldiers fired shots, killing both Mardian and Diomedes (here, conflated with the Messenger) instantly. Proculeius then tidied up his briefcase and notes as the women were taken hostage, his work completed. It was left to Maecenas, whispering and sneaking quickly out of a door, to give Cleopatra the information she needed.

This moment of abrupt violence, taking place before Cleopatra’s throne, was a violation of a space that was set up throughout as the play’s physical and emotional heart. The relationship between Kathryn Hunter’s Cleopatra and her maidservants (Hannah Young as Charmian, Samantha Young as Iras) was warm, complex, funny and, above all else, mutually loyal. One running joke saw Cleopatra emerge in a different elegant outfit every time she arrived on stage, while Charmian and Iras followed in matching co-ordinated outfits, perpetuating and extending the image Cleopatra created for herself. While the play was loosely modern-dress, the womens’ outfits ranged from sharp white suits and shades to exotic dresses with flowery headdresses. The closeness between the women determined the character of the court, a jovial but tightly-knit network of in-jokes, knowing looks and favouritism that served both to ingratiate the favoured and exclude unwelcome outsiders.

In front of her woman, and to a greater extent in front of visitors, Hunter’s Cleopatra was a continual performer. Whether sinking to her knees in a "swoon", dancing for her lover or enacting various melodramatic poses of despair, Hunter’s performance was physical and utterly compelling, demanding the full attention of both onstage and offstage audiences. This entirely unique Cleopatra may have been tiny, but Hunter made herself the focus of her every appearance on stage, whether "performing" contrition or queenliness. She fulfilled the difficult trick of being self-composed at all times, yet projecting herself as unpredictable to her subordinates. In a wonderfully performed comic segment, faced with Paul Hamilton’s messenger, she began by slapping the hapless man mercilessly before drawing a knife, at which he ran offstage. Promising to be composed, she called for her throne and sat to receive the cowering man as he returned. When he delivered the same news – that Antony was married – she pulled a revolver from under her throne and fired shots after him as he ran, before causing her retinue to dive for cover as she swung the pistol round. With the Clown omitted, Hamilton became the production’s main comic relief, rendering his sudden, brutal execution particularly cruel.

D’Silva’s Antony, meanwhile, was a grizzled soldier, as comfortable in fatigues as in the white dinner jacket in which we first saw him, lolling in a spotlight with Cleopatra. This Antony was notable primarily for his emotional range. Capable of great tenderness (as with Octavia) and restraint (in a civilised but remarkably tense Triumvirate meeting), his extremes of emotion were conversely the only way he was able to wrench attention away from his lover in the Egyptian scenes. Following the retreat of Cleopatra’s ships, he collapsed, sobbing, against the metal tower at the back of the stage. With Cleopatra kneeling downstage, the defeated soldier banged his head in frustration against the wall, directing his distress at Cleopatra while opening his arms to her approach. Taking the queen into his embrace, the two wept together in their prone position.

This position was echoed in their closing moments together, as Antony was hoisted up to a platform protruding from an opening at the top of the tower. Earlier, next to the dead Eros, Antony’s sprawling figure was laughably pathetic, a mockery of the devoted loyalty that the boy had shown to him as he rolled and moaned "Not dead?" Raised up and pulled into Cleopatra’s arms, the body was rendered noble. The image was clear: as a dying soldier, he was wanting. As a dying lover, he was complete. The bittersweet laughs that followed Cleopatra’s refusal to let him speak were reminders of their relationship; their final moments together fittingly recapturing the dynamic of their peak.

While Antony’s personal identity may have ultimately been subsumed into his shared one with Cleopatra, a sense of this decline was created through glimpses of his earlier power. The loyalty of his men, particularly Eros and Brian Doherty’s casual Enobarbus (sample moment: during the Triumvirate’s council, Enobarbus pushed his license to speak too far, chatting casually from his back seat and eventually being violently shouted at by Antony), cast him as a leader followed out of love rather than duty, and this was further emphasised by omitting Dercetus and giving his lines to Adam Burton’s Scarus: here, the betrayal of the soldier so honoured by Antony in earlier scenes was especially distasteful.

In his negotiations with Clarence Smith’s Pompey, we saw the charisma that enabled this man to be a world leader. Antony and Pompey’s prior agreement was stressed, the two immediately adopting a relationship of embraces and quiet chats aside, in contrast to the more formal antagonism of Lepidus and Caesar, earlier made clear by Pompey entering and pointing a revolver at Caesar’s head as the latter left the stage. Smith’s performance, flanked by two dishevelled pirates, was dangerously amiable, an unpredictable power, that needed to be gently and amicably brought to surrender by Antony’s quiet words rather than intimidated by Caesar’s cold force. The dangers of Pompey were further emphasised by Phillip Edgerley’s strong Menas who, in a lovely scene during the barge party, whispered to Pompey in the middle of the crowd while the lights dimmed and the revellers slowed to bare suggestions of movement. Moving between the Triumvirate, with particular attention to Caesar, the insidious danger of the pirates was made clear, and Menas’ angry departure from the stage only heightened the unpredictability of these new allies.

This was one of only a few overtly theatrical effects during the production. Another saw the tower open up during the departure of Bacchus, smoke and light spilling out and inviting the guard soldiers in, to their surprise and confusion. The battles were realised as choreographed dances: the initial sea battle saw a huge blue drape lowered over the stage and held aloft by Charmian and Iras. The two, with Cleopatra, then brought out enormous paper ships, which bobbed over the men as they began to brawl on the stage. Suddenly, the three turned away and marched offstage with their ships, and both armies stopped and stared in amazement at the flight of the ships. The long drape was later evoked in Cleopatra’s final dressing, for which she held out her arms and was clad in metres of cloth that trailed across the stage, the tiny queen continuing to fill the stage even in her final moments.

Against the excesses and majesty of Antony and Cleopatra, finally, was positioned John Mackay’s Octavius. Only ever betraying real emotion when confronted with his sister, this was a cold and stunted man. During the celebrations on Pompey’s barge, Mackay sat downstage, stiff and uncomfortable in unbuttoned shirt while the remainder of the soldiers lounged on the floor. As the soldiers chanted at him to drink, he eventually snapped and roared his anger at the rest of them, breaking up the party; just as he would later break with Sandy Neilson’s amiable Lepidus, displayed manacled on an overhead platform even as his fate was described. Octavius surrounded himself with beurocrats, including Maecenas and Geoffrey Freshwater’s Agrippa, and was concerned more than anything else with self-presentation. In his most powerful moment, the stage cleared at the close of the penultimate scene. Left alone in a chair centrestage, Octavius turned to the audience and addressed us: "You shall see/ How hardly I was drawn into this war, / How calm and gentle I proceeded still." This special pleading, this attempt to condition our responses before the action had even been taken, was symptomatic of Octavius, and the blackout that followed this scene (the only one of the production) underlined the importance of this moment. While Antony and Cleopatra may have owned the hearts of their followers, Octavius showed himself to be a master of mass manipulation; and even though we could see through his facade, we could do nothing to stop him. A "new politics", indeed.

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