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May 18, 2010

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.

November 21, 2009

Roman Tragedies (Toneelgroep Amsterdam) @ The Barbican

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A six hour version of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra stitched together. With no interval. In promenade. In Dutch with surtitles. It's been a while since I've subjected myself to a Shakespearean endurance test (The Histories), and this was the kind of hardcore event which doesn't come around very often. Happily, Toneelgroep Amsterdam's first visit to the UK in ten years was one to be enjoyed rather than endured, an intelligent and exciting reworking of these three plays that forced one to confront our changing attitudes to the stories that matter.

It's a rather difficult event to review, as everyone who went would have had an entirely different experience. For the majority of the afternoon/evening, audience members were invited to wander freely around the auditorium and onto the stage, watching the action from any number of vantage points. Thus, while it was possible to watch the production 'normally' from the auditorium, most of us spent long periods promenading among the actors.

The stage and set-up require some explanation. These were the corridors of power, like the back rooms at the UN. Comfortable sofas, pot plants and coffee tables were complemented by coffee bars, a running buffet, an internet cafe and newspaper stands, among which both cast and audience spent their evenings. We were actively encouraged to check our e-mail, to grab a paper, to sit down with a meal or a glass of wine; there were no breaks among which we might do so communally, and events were continuous apart from short breaks for scene changes. We were not expected to 'watch' everything that happened; rather, we were encouraged to take control over our own experience, to choose what we wanted to watch.

Almost all of the action was filmed by a variety of fixed and mobile cameras, the political events being edited live for TV. Some reports were delivered by 'anchors' from a newsdesk at the back of the stage, others were staged for television such as a live debate between Coriolanus, Menenius and the Tribunes, or Brutus and Antony's orations, while other action was caught on handhold cameras with the characters apparently unaware. This filmed footage was screened both above the stage for those in the auditorium (essential on a deep stage with many compartmentalised seating areas, where the action wasn't always visible), and onto a number of televisions grouped around the stage. It was thus possible to select a sofa and essentially sit watching television for the evening, enjoying politics as mediated by the television cameras.

The result of all this was to recast the events of ancient Rome as modern day news events, with the audience placing a similar kind of value on them. While many of the audience deliberately ensured they made their way back to the auditorium for the 'live' experience of Brutus and Antony's addresses to the people, for example, I caught the whole thing on television. In the corner of my eye, meanwhile, another screen showed clips of Barack Obama giving speeches, instantly recasting what I was watching as a worldwide broadcast, an intensely intimate, yet live, television event that communicated personally what was experienced massively by the audience in the auditorium.

The cameras were used to great effect throughout, highlighting tiny details that could not have been communicated without them: the intense eyes of Coriolanus as he hid his face from his mother; the frozen scream of Cleopatra as she prepared to send word of her death to Antony; the hidden expressions of Portia as she buried her face in her pillow. The cast were liberated to perform in a variety of keys; both grandstanding performances to the seated audience, and 'private' moments that the camera took responsibility for distributing. It also allowed for more virtuoso effects: the ghost of Caesar, for example, was superimposed only on the broadcast picture, with the live Brutus talking to an empty chair; and Enobarbus' flight from his own guilt took him out of the Barbican and into the car-park, where his screams caused some consternation to the catering staff on a cigarette break, the whole thing captured on the roving camera and relayed back to the auditorium.

The production was insistent on displaying to us history in its many and varied forms, in keeping with the idea of this history as a real and living one, rather than one author's idea of the past. Thus, while Shakespeare's action shaped the body of the plot, a ticker-tape reel countered the stage story with running commentary on the 'real' history, with dates of battles and deaths, explanations of the political shifts and roles of various officials, and further details that Shakespeare ignored in the plays. As the play ended, a long list of questions: "Is the ideal of democracy worth the sacrifice of an individual?" "Can tyranny be justified?" etc. scrolled across the screen, asking us to consider history as a battle of ideologies. Other screens displayed relevant newsreels throughout, whether accompanying the campaign against Aufidius with footage of the Afghan war or displaying the Olympics while Caesar's Rome celebrated the Lupercal, imagining history as a series of events endlessly repeated. To complicate matters even further, the news ticker also displayed information such as "150 minutes until Julius Caesar's death" for the key characters, emphasising the inevitability of history: the interest here was not in what happens, but in how we get there.

In director Ivo van Hove's Rome, history became something that was created privately and domestically rather than publicly. All scenes which gave the masses a voice were cut, and increasingly the focus of events was narrowed and humanised. Thus, Coriolanus was fragmented and heavily cut. The Tribunes emerged from the audience, speaking ostensibly on our behalf though far more obviously for themselves. The longest, core scene was performed as a press conference, with a chafing Coriolanus (Fedja van Huet) soothed by Menenius at one end of the table and attacked by Sicinius and Brutus at the other for disrespect to the people. In between the two groups sat Cominius and a Senator, attempting to maintain order over the physical fights which continually erupted, the overturned chairs and angry threats of an impassioned political debate that resulted, ultimately, in Coriolanus' banishment. These public scenes were contrasted with the dominant Fried Pittoors as Volumnia, who held state in a raised seated section from which she rarely moved. To her, in this private setting, flocked senators, rulers and her son, and it was in her presence that the real decisions were made. Pittoors' commanding presence made her plea to Coriolanus, a fixed bow from the waist from which she refused to raise herself, all the more compelling. van Huet's performance, meanwhile, turned the story of Coriolanus into one of a reluctant public figure, a hero forced to play a game he does not understand and with which he bore no patience. As he agonised over his decision to sack Rome, the cameras captured a haunted, confused gaze which spoke of a man completely lost.

Julius Caesar, for my money the best part of the production, gave a fuller text which happily trimmed the final scenes mercilessly, turning the play into a lean and thrilling descent into chaos. The only real public scene here was one of the production's highlights; Brutus first addressing the audience from a podium in a commanding performance, before Antony's far more informal engagement. An accident had confined actor Hans Kesting to a wheelchair, but this only made him the more compelling: as he rolled around the stage with surprising speed and agility, Antony's apparent disability only belied the danger he posed. Rolling around to the front of a podium he could not see over, and forcing the fixed state camera to yield to a handheld, unmediated broadcast, Antony addressed himself to the camera as much as the crowd, pulling out an image of Caesar and scrawling over it with red pen as he described the wounds. As he spoke, the conspirators who stood in a line behind him slowly sidled away and made their exit, whispering in a corner until an enraged Antony wheeled and made a beeline straight for Brutus, onto whom he launched himself in an attempt to throttle the murderer. In the absence of a performed crowd for Antony to play to, Kesting conveyed the power of revolution in words that demonstrated the power of the camera to turn a close-up into a seismic shift in world order.

Several characters were recast as female, as part of van Hove's mission to turn the events into a relatively realistic reflection of contemporary politics. Octavius and Cassius were both women, and this made for a fascinating dynamic between Renee Fokker's Cassius and Roeland Fernhout's Brutus. Cassius here became a powerful yet frustrated politician, unable to enact events on her own terms and reliant on Brutus for the necessary support to carry through her actions. Fernhout's reflective Brutus was matched for power by her sheer determination, and the two of them were intimidating when together, and terrifying when opposed. As the two of them quarrelled in a dim office, late at night, Brutus was here rendered far from stoic; a tired and emotional man with the weight of the world on his shoulders who screamed defiance at Cassius' questioning of his commands. The relative equality of the two was revealed in an almost tender farewell as the two parted for the last time.

Antony and Cleopatra cranked up the intensity and domesticity a further notch, with a comparatively full text that ran to two and a half hours by itself. Split into two halves, and with the audience forced to return to the auditorium for the second half, this was the part of the play that we were required to watch, to experience as a unified group without the distractions offered on stage. For this world, presided over by Chris Nietvelt's Cleopatra and Marieke Heebink's highly-sexualised Charmian, politics moved into the bedroom. Charmian ran Cleopatra's court with a disturbing combination of seduction (especially of other women) and devil-may-care pragmatism; as they waited for Octavius to arrive, she marched for a champagne bottle as if it was a necessary weapon. Hadewych Minis's Octavius offered a stark contrast, her white shirt and tie belying a puritanical and sparse personality that accepted events with a sense of inevitably and necessity. Upon giving away Octavia, she kissed her sister tenderly, then with increased passion. This one moment of emotional urgency was instantly cut into by Charmian's distant cries for "Music!" before, to the eruption of the Red Hot Chili Peppers onto the video screens, the scene cut to a wild orgy in Egypt as Cleopatra and her ladies thrashed about on the floor to the loud rock tunes.

The final scenes, captured closely by the cameras, were played out in full as Cleopatra and her ladies followed the deaths of Antony and prepared themselves for the inevitable. Centrally in the stage was an area into which, almost superstitiously, audience members were instructed not to go. Between two glass screens stood an empty space which symbolised death; every time a character was murdered or committed suicide, they moved to that space and lay down on a trolley, and an overhead snapshot of their 'body' was taken and displayed, frozen, on the video screens. As this space increasingly became the focus, the characters were uncontrollably drawn to it, surrounding Antony's body which lay splayed out. As the space became laden with bodies, Octavia sent first aid teams to resuscitate the fallen, but to no avail. The history of Rome, with all its scale and worldwide ramificaitons, ultimately ended up figured in the four dead bodies that filled this empty space.

History was too big for this production, just as the production was too big for this review. This was, perhaps, the production's greatest strength - its recognition that history is best realised through the all-too-human stories of individuals, through the representative rather than the comprehensive. In this, the production was possibly the most Shakespearean history I've yet seen. There's far more that could have been discussed: the wonderful chaotic drumming that stood for the various wars; the hysterically floozy Casca; the tenderness of the mirrored Caesar/Calphurnia and Brutus/Portia scenes; the homely picture of Antony lying across Octavia's lap and her disgraced return to Rome; the traumatic effect that Coriolanus' final fall had on Aufidius. Perhaps it's enough to say that this was the only production this year to which I've yet given a standing ovation. A beautifully performed, expertly produced and deeply provoking reading of the Roman histories which really demands repeat experiences.

April 02, 2009

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.

February 18, 2007

Antony & Cleopatra @ The Novello Theatre

Friday night was the chance to revisit, for one final time, the excellent ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, bookending my Complete Works marathon quite nicely with the same production, seen for a third time almost a year after I first saw it in the Swan.

It was very good, but I was disappointed at how much its translation to proscenium arch stage had hurt the production. This ‘Antony’ thrived on its domestic scenes, at the intimate portrait of two lovers and rulers trying to reconcile their personal and political interests. On the big stage, though, they never quite managed to evoke the same intimacy as the Swan allowed them to.

Elsewhere, the highlights of this production remained in place. John Hopkins’ Octavius was as twitchy and uncertain as before, coming into his own in the final third of the play. Ken Bones also dominated the stage as Enobarbus, including a moment I hadn’t noticed before which hinted at an ambiguous sexuality as he moved to kiss Menas, before the two of them withdrew to Minas’ cabin. And, of course, Harriet Walter and Patrick Stewart gave superb performances, emphasising both the physical age and the mental youth of the characters.

As in the London ‘Much Ado’, the comedy seemed to have been somewhat dumbed down for the London audience, particularly in the character of Lepidus who had developed an irritating habit of falling over for added laughs. More distressingly, the audience appeared to find quite moving moments, suh as the suicide of Eros, funny rather than horrifying.

Disappointed as I was that the play had suffered in translation, it remained some of the best recent RSC work, and thoroughly deserved the sold-out house who received it. It also, however, confirmed in my mind my belief that the Swan and Courtyard are far better environments for playing Shakespeare- even five rows from the front, I felt distanced from the action. For that reason, I’m looking forward to ‘The Tempest’ next month, which was originally a proscenium arch production and therefore will hopefully not lose anything from the Stratford production.

July 24, 2006

Antony & Cleopatra @ 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!

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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