The cast of Bell Shakespeare’s production of Antony and Cleopatra spend much of their stage time languidly posing in shifting configurations amongst the set’s simple luxe elegance – oversized velvet seats that suggest the lobby of an exclusive international hotel. Designer Anna Cordingley has dressed the cast in stylish and sharply tailored suits, expensive polo neck knits and artily structured cocktail wear. In this production, from the company’s artistic director Peter Evans, the Roman politicians and their boosters and servants have become the celebrities of today.
The cast look and carry themselves like the global citizens who move with ease between the UN or the EU and fashion shows and award ceremonies. It takes me a while to work out what the whole ensemble keeps reminding me of (when characters aren’t speaking they tend to sit pensively or moodily on the sidelines). And then there it is: if the cast paused intermittently to stare defiantly at the audience, they would be a series of Annie Leibovitz-directed tableaux for Vanity Fair special edition covers.
Antony and Cleopatra is a celebrity love story set against the backdrop of political drama.
Evans’ re-imagining of the play makes sense when you think of the way politicians like Macron, Obama and Trudeau carry themselves with rock star élan and mingle with movie stars. And celebrities are now our idols and royals. We worship and model ourselves on them, we follow their every coupling and de-coupling.
Antony and Cleopatra is a celebrity love story set against the backdrop of political drama: the collapse of a great alliance between a triumvirate of Roman rulers, Octavius (Gareth Reeves), Antony (Johnny Carr) and Lepidus (Jo Turner). The play opens in Egypt, where Antony is partying with Cleopatra, but Octavius has summoned him back to Rome. Catherine McClements’ Cleopatra slinks around the stage, variously purring and cajoling Antony and striking out with her claws and fists whenever he or anyone else displeases her. She’s dressed in black pants and a long white shirt that reminded me of Uma Thurman’s Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction, although her leonine mane is more Michael Hutchence (Thurman’s black Cleopatra bob would be too cliched).
Antony eventually bends to Rome, where Agrippa (Steve Rogers as a veteran political advisor, dishevelled in leather jacket and the exception to the otherwise primped cast) has a plan. He convinces Octavius and Antony that the latter should marry Octavius’ sister Octavia (Ursula Mills), ‘To make you brothers, and to knit your hearts’. The changes of scene are effectively signalled by Benjamin Cisterne’s lighting – warm reds, sensual pinks and sandy yellows denote Egypt, cool corporate blues take us to Rome.
Effective too, are the inter-scene projections on the tall diaphanous curtain pulled across the stage when the play skips forward years at a time. A bold and classic Helvetica-esque font announces the year and key dramatic events that have played out off stage. (The gauzy curtains – which create the lush hotel mood, but which also seem a nod to mid-century Hollywood epics of Rome – are also used cleverly to create a watery effect for a battle scene at sea and a hazy effect for a drunken party).
A bearded and youthful Johnny Carr brings a fresh take to Antony, playing him like Joaquin Phoenix in his is-he-insane-or-is-he-a-genius? phase.
Carr and McClements (pictured below) conjure a middle life, lusty love that is kept alive by long absences. But it is not as saccharine or corporeally bodily as young love can be. Don’t come expecting explosively heated scenes. Cleopatra comes across as the stronger partner: although she stays in place, she drives Antony, and the plot, until she fatally overplays her histrionic hand. And Shakespeare doesn’t spare her the full range of human failures: she slaps her servants and orders whippings for messengers more than any other man on stage.
Antony is caught between his duty as a soldier and his crazy-making love for Cleopatra. A bearded and youthful Johnny Carr brings a fresh take to the character, playing him like Joaquin Phoenix in his is-he-insane-or-is-he-a-genius? phase, when the actor seemed to turn his back on Hollywood to become a rapper. But Cleopatra fell in love with Antony the soldier and politician, and the couple’s central problem is that the very thing which power won him – a woman’s love – becomes the thing which can destroy him.
When Octavius disposes of Lepidus, and the triumvirate becomes a coalition of two, Antony betrays his commitment to Octavius in favour of plotting and intrigue with the more political Cleopatra: ‘And you shall see in him/The triple pillar of the world transformed/Into a strumpet’s fool’. It perhaps gives the coalition of Turnbull and Joyce too much gravitas and significance to compare them to Octavius and Antony, but you can’t help but imagine the Bell Shakespeare company exchanged many wry and knowing smiles as the news of Joyce’s affair, Turnbull’s sex ban and Joyce’s very public personal disintegration played out over the past few months.
Unless you know the play well, the dialogue can at times be hard to follow. That’s not overly the fault of actors – Shakespeare often just doesn’t sound right when spoken too slowly, as even my plus one, a 13-year-old Roman history and drama fan, noted. But some of the supporting cast are really terrific – particularly Ray Chong Nee as Antony’s companion Enobarbus, and Lucy Goleby as challenger Pompey and political advisor Scarus. Actor and singer Zindzi Okenyo has enormous stage presence as Cleopatra’s servant Charmian, and Evans puts her beautiful voice to great use towards the play’s end. With many major plot points taking place off stage, and the on-stage action focussed on characters plotting and politicking and persuading each other, much of the production’s success depends on charisma and conviction of the cast. Carr and McClements are, thankfully, both appropriately convincing and thoroughly watchable.
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At the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, until April 7