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Monday, 25 August 2014

Review: Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and Cleopatra
by William Shakespeare
Director: Gary Griffin
Designers: Charlotte Dean (set / costumes), Michael Walton (lighting), Peter McBoyle (sound)

L-R: Jennifer Mogbock as Iras, Yanna McIntosh as Cleopatra,
Sophia Walker as Charmian. Photo: David Hou
The names of Antony and Cleopatra are as familiar to the world as those of Romeo and Juliet - even to those who shun or shudder at the name of 'Shakespeare' know these famous duos and that they met tragic fates. But whereas the younger couple may blame the stars that crossed them, the middle-aged Antony and Cleopatra really only have themselves to blame, thus the play itself defies such easy definition as a mere tragedy.

The play is notoriously challenging to stage - the story shifts setting from Rome to Egypt to battles at sea and back again in a matter of heart-beats, and without engaging the modern technology of video scrim-screens, the frequent change of locale can be tricky for directors to convey clearly to the audience.

Director Gary Griffin starts well in this regard, using the elongated thrust of the Tom Patterson stage for Egypt, complete with an enormous, hieroglyphic-covered plinth (designed by Charlotte Dean) which becomes a stage upon a stage for the dramatic queen Cleopatra. When the scene first changes to Rome we find two of the three triumvirate on the balcony, literally looking down their noses at Antony's behaviour. Very nice. Alas, that is the only clear indication of locale-change - except for Michael Walton's lighting, bright and cold for Rome; warm and rich for Egypt, even when the queen is dying.

The other problem with this particular play is that the two main characters are so very unlikable. On the surface they both seem selfish, indulgent, inconsiderate... and yet, this is a very western, very Roman way of looking at them. 

Geraint Wyn Davies as Antony.
Photo: David Hou
Foreground: Yanna McIntosh as Cleopatra.
Background: Ijeoma Emesowum as attendant, 

Jennifer Mogbock as Iras.
Photo: David Hou

Taken from an Egyptian perspective, Cleopatra and Antony's revelry in each other is perfectly natural - natural being the key word. The Egyptian culture, even during Cleopatra's reign, was still very much preoccupied with the old gods: simply put, on earth Antony and Cleopatra are Osiris and Isis, the union of whom ensured the prosperity of the land by bringing forth the waters of the river Nile to flood its banks and make the land fertile. Even if you look at this in a political light, Cleopatra's union with one of the triumvirate of the world's largest empire would of course be beneficial for the land she rules. 

This perspective is exactly what Gary Griffin and his wonderful cast bring out in his production, which is the best version of this problematic play I have yet seen. (And that includes one by the RSC with Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter.)

In two very powerful performances, Yanna McIntosh and Geraint Wyn Davies convey incredible depth of feeling these two leaders have for each other. They flirt, embrace, laugh, play, scold, rail, scream, insult each other... all with great energy and heart - but the way their Antony and Cleopatra find their way back to each other after each unforgivable act is extraordinarily beautiful to witness.

Yanna McIntosh as Cleopatra, Geraint Wyn Davies
as Antony. Photo: David Hou
But there is so much more in this production to enjoy. We have seen Tom McCamus play cynics before, but not like this. A deep thrum from the sound team underlines nearly everything Enobarbus says, adding extra weight to the character's observations. In truth, Mr. McCamus really does not need such an emotional aid, but it serves a nice contrast between the lowly, honest soldier and the mighty but duplicitous Caesar, played with great intensity by Ben Carlson. Mr. Carlson gives us not just a "full-fortun'd Caesar" but very much a self-made ruler, coldly confident that he can manipulate all in his path to his wishes.

L-R: Sean Arbuckle as Mecenas, Ben Carlson as Octavius
Caesar, Peter Hutt as Agrippa. Photo: David Hou

In much smaller roles, Sophia Walker, Jennifer Mogbock and Antoine Yared give us more examples of easy Egyptian sensuality as a very cheeky Charmian, loyal Iras and arch Mardian (respectively), while Daniel Briere and Carmen Grant provide striking contrasts as the upright and uptight but loyal-to-a-fault Eros and Octavia.

If there is one fault in the production it is that it suffers from the same sort of problem that plagues Christina, The Girl King, and The Beaux' Strategem: due to some fragmented story-telling, the first "half" seems interminably long, while the second "half" flies by. Unfortunately in this case it is the director, not the text itself, that fails the production in this regard.

That being said, this is an excellent version of a seldom-performed play that should not be missed - which most people seem to have figured out, because it has proven so popular at the box office that extra shows had to be added to supply the demand.

Antony and Cleopatra continues in repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 28.

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