When Mark Anthony ignores his duties as one of the Octavius-Lepidus-Antony triumvirate that rules Rome, tempers flare. But the Egyptian Queen and her kingdom prove difficult to resist.
In 2011, just prior to John Bell’s accession, Peter Evans directed a tight little production of Julius Caesar for the company. It was terrific. A little bit raw, sure, but lean and rigorous – the kind of pared back, inventive piece you might wish for from the national touring company, and a huge relief after years of Shakespeare over-stuffed on concept but light on clarity.
It didn’t last.
In this latest Roman outing for Evans and Bell Shakespeare, the complexities of empire are played out in a luxurious bed/board/conversation/lounge room, er, pit – it’s all very open plan, an apartment – somewhere in downtown The Known World.
The action is by turns obscured or revealed by members of the cast opening and closing a set of opulent, semi-transparent curtains that dominate the space. For the rest, designer Anna Cordingley provides chic stools and couches over which the actors drape themselves languidly, suggestive of a certain ennui.
Shorn of grandeur, of magnificence we’re left with relationship and political intrigue, neither of which prove compelling enough to hold one’s attention.
The curtains serve as both a scrim – soaking up great bursts of coloured light – and a screen for huge projections: ‘30BC’, ‘War’ and helpful story updates. Since navigating one’s way through the Roman Wars is not for the faint hearted, I for one was grateful for this intervention. The stark graphic text was dynamic and dramatic: not words one can apply to much else in this production.
Evans’ decision to set the piece firmly in the now, as a sort of Boardroom Shakespeare, seems reasonable, but attempting to reduce the epic to the ordinary is a risk. The staging reduces, domesticates the vast scope of the saga, and flattens the power the piece demands. Shorn of grandeur, of magnificence we’re left with relationship and political intrigue, neither of which prove compelling enough to hold one’s attention. It’s ‘Previously on Antony and Cleopatra….’ the soap opera rather than any sort of commentary on the current political clime, and even as a soap, it’s not going to last more than a season.
Actors walk slowly behind the main action – usually they’re on curtain closing duty.
They pose at the end of various sections of the play for ‘photo ops’, potentially, an interesting device but the staging is decorative rather than deliberate, adding nothing to our understanding of the play. They are onstage for most of the play, a device I usually favour, I like to see the ‘skull beneath the skin’, the bones of the play. But, as in Evans’ similarly staged Richard the 3rd, rendered redundant; not trapped exactly, but muted, muffled, hidden, by all that drapery; smothered by soft furnishings. The languid draping becomes tiresome, working against both the muscularity of the text and the dynamic immediacy of the narrative.
At least in Richard, we had the pleasure of witnessing what was, in effect, a pretty great one woman show from Kate Mulvaney.
If this production is more Big Brother than HBO Rome, it’s also not as gripping as either. For all the saturated colour pulsing through the drapery, this empire is a beige world.
There’s a brief spell, late in the second half, when Antony escapes the curtained world and walks among us as does Cleopatra to, we wrongly suppose, her death. Finally the veil between audience and actor is lifted. But it’s too little, too late and merely adds to the lack of cohesion in this production, another in a complete mishmash of stylistic tweaks and gimmicks signifying… not very much.
The love affair of Antony and Cleopatra is renowned as both passionate and precipitant, Shakespeare’s play no less immense. It’s a play about rulers – some of them gods – and empires, they’re not ordinary people heck, they’re not even ordinary Romans. They’re, what? Super-Romans?! And even in such impressive company, exotic, extraordinary Egyptian Cleopatra, should stand apart.
As Cleopatra, Catherine McClements is a strong, intelligent, middle aged woman.
Barefoot and sporting a relaxed-though-elegant trouser suit (masculine chic with a fabulous cuff), she’s holding up pretty well actually, if, as it later transpires, a bit fickle in the deployment of her ships.
Johnny Carr, miscast as Antony, plays a sort of juvenile hipster toyboy, designer stubble gone to seed. It’s impossible to credit him as a military figure of renown and worse – he’s a whiner; she’d eat him for dinner.
McClements manages the skittish, wily side of Cleopatra well, but her moments of magnificence, of power and rage (back-handing the help doth not an Empress make), sound like petulance. Without the kind of costuming that reinforces her difference, she’s Daenerys (Game of Thrones) Targaryen without three (sorry, two) dragons. She’s not exotic. She’s not unique. A Cleopatra reduced by the production rather than by circumstance.
The actors perform sturdily. Lucy Goleby as Pompey has a nice line in brisk clarity, Gareth Reeves is a confident Octavius and Zindzi Okenyo, a compelling Charmian/Iras. But the honours go to Ray Chong Nee who, as Enobarbus owns the text, speaking as though it’s his natural mode – surely a more convincing choice for Antony than Carr.
Max Lyandvert’s score is moody, haunting; filling in what the work on stage is shorn of.
I found myself reflecting, as Antony (spoiler alert!) kills himself (incompetently, eventually – his death a bummer rather than a tragedy), that a show can survive the death or expunging (see also House of Cards) of a major character. But not, I realised, with Cleopatra’s own Asp action Two. Turns out, that’s a good thing; though I understand they’re re-screening the prequel, Julius Caesar later this year.
This production remains firmly earthbound; all dressed up and nowhere to go for the Fall of the Roman Empire.
Fiona Blair is a writer and director. She is the artistic director of The Old Van Ltd Theatre.