Naomi Simpson reviews this brash, brutal and sexy production of one of Shakespeare’s later works, part of the RSC’s current ‘Rome’ season
How do you stage two worlds in combat? How do you make ancient politics come alive for a modern audience? How do you breathe life into the next generation of star cross’d lovers to grace the Shakespearean cannon? You inject it with a good dose of melodrama, turn up the heat and let a tempestuous female lead take a universal love story hurtling into the 21st century.
The RSC’s current performance of Antony and Cleopatra as part of their Rome Season is not a refined, intellectual experience. It is brash, sexy, brutal, garish and all the better for it. For those unfamiliar with the story of Shakespeare’s most mature lovers, the scene is first set in Alexandria, the seat of Queen Cleopatra of Egypt’s power and the hideaway from Roman duties of her lover, Mark Antony. For most of the play, as political tension brews across the Mediterranean, Cleopatra’s court at Egypt is a haven of playful sexiness and harmless flirtation, but as Antony is dragged away to fulfil his duties as part of the governing triumvirate with Lepidus and Caesar we see this dichotomy of free living and loving in Egypt and austere politics in Rome start to disintegrate. War comes, passions are stretched and ultimately, Cleopatra is given the rare Shakespearean privilege of outliving her co-eponym. All in three hours, mind, so strap in for quite the theatrical ride.
One of the most famous speeches in the play, delivered by Antony’s countryman Enobarbus describes the almost cosmic power of Cleopatra’s beauty and presence as made of ‘infinite variety,’ a promise carried from the text into every aspect of the production. As the production began, masked dancers threw the audience into the heart of the Egyptian revels to the sound of stunning music by Laura Mvula. As the dancers receded to the sides of the stage a sunken platform emerged from the centre of the stage to reveal Antony and Cleopatra in bed, seemingly free of any concern other than which hedonistic pleasure to pursue next. Antony, played by Antony Byrne, oscillates throughout the performance between Mediterranean machismo and British brooding, at times the dutiful soldier and others the hopeless lover who would give his life and home for love. Cleopatra, on the other hand, is constant. Josette Simon’s Queen of Egypt is tempestuous and visceral, sucking in all the audience’s attention and leaving them gasping at her physicality and melodrama. Cleopatra was, after all, a principal reason for the fall of the triumvirate governing system in Rome, so Simon was set no easy task in portraying her.
In a role which is often seen as simply too big for one person, Simon was electric and entrancing. The audience were swept away in her turbulent emotional outbursts and the rhythms of her acrobatic voice as she drew all the characters into her orbit and brought herself and her lover crashing to the ground in gloriously melodramatic style. Subtlety was not a strong suit, but it needn’t be. Byrne as Antony was certainly watchable and provided a measured and accessible way into the play for the audience, but his stage presence was swallowed up by Simon’s Cleopatra. This is precisely the dynamic the play needs to function, so allowances must be given for Byrne as another victim to Cleopatra’s power.
A necessary and totally justified addition to the play was the exploration of Antony and Cleopatra’s sexualities outside their own fiery relationship. Both lead actors have same-sex kisses onstage, an intriguing examination into the closeness of relationships in combat for Antony and in service for Cleopatra. This free-flowing sexuality provided a continuation of the drama of the play while the lovers were parted and nodded to the maturity of Shakespeare’s depiction of sexuality in this, one of his later plays.
Although traditional in its take on dress and some aspects of staging (at times Egypt is reduced to sphynxes and Rome to imposing columns), Antony and Cleopatra is utterly modern. Taking ancient notions of loyalty and leadership, the RSC latched onto the idea of a woman with enough power to bring the world crashing down with her head held high. This faith in the character to carry the play to its electric climax allowed Simon to mount the throne for Cleopatra’s final act of defiance with a profound regalness, proving that age truly cannot wither her.