Antony and Cleopatra

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Josette Simon and Antony Byrne. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

The RSC’s Roman season revisits a theme first devised by Trevor Nunn in 1972. Now overseen by Angus Jackson, it is likely to prove problematic in some of the same ways. Although the four Roman-themed plays have much in common, they have more that keeps them apart. Titus Andronicus, written at the start of Shakespeare’s career, is an entirely different type of play to the others. Coriolanus has a political focus and hardness of language all its own. Julius Caesar and Antony Cleopatra are theoretically sequels, but share little more than sequential events. The former is frequently staged but the latter is more discussed than performed. It is a notoriously difficult play to pull off, but Iqbal Khan gives us a compelling production which revolves around the two leads, and in particular Josette Simon’s Cleopatra.

Simon has been absent from the RSC, where her appearances during the 1980s were pioneering for black actors in Shakespeare. Her return as Cleopatra has been worth the wait. While some actors play Cleopatra, she becomes her – slim, playful, full of contradictions, but characterised above all by her vivacity. It is impossible not to like her, even as she tears apart the lives around her, and Antony’s obsession is no surprise. Simon uses a teasing range of voices throughout, from Eartha Kitt to the Caribbean, flitting among roles to maintain her mystery and therefore influence. By contrast, Anthony Byrne’s Antony is stocky and square-shouldered, a soldier first and a lover by circumstance. His limitations make sense of his naivety, as Cleopatra drags him to his doom. Ben Allen’s Octavius Caesar is less of a politician and more of a dangerous child, which gives him an unusual edge. Likewise, Andrew Woodall’s decision to play Enobarbus as a London-accented Sergeant Major is counter-intuitive but fascinating, as his hard vowels make the play’s poetry sing in new ways.

In the infamous monument scene, Cleopatra and her women haul and bundle the dying Antony over a high wall, a moment which rarely works. Robert Innes Hopkins has designed a traditional column-dominated set for the Roman season, with an ingenious use of a centre-stage lift to form Roman baths, Egyptian palaces and a menacing void which the characters spin obliviously around. Playful additions, such as the outsize toy boats used to stage the sea battle work well. The machinery is smoother than 1972’s notoriously tricky stage, but it cannot hide the play’s structural problems as the second half seems to slow to real time. The cast need to pick the pace up, which as the run progresses they surely will.

Khan’s production is a qualified success. It is not entirely clear where the production’s intellectual charge lies. The programme contains an essay on the foolishness of cutting a key military scene, and the production does just that, suggesting some indecision in rehearsal. Instead, he should have taken the plunge and cut the lines that require monument hauling. However, it showcases Josette Simon’s magnificent return as the best Cleopatra in 30 years, a very good reason to hurry to Stratford this Spring.