Antony and Cleopatra Review

“The triple pillar of the world transformed into a strumpet’s fool”.

Antony and Cleopatra may have superficial similarities and themes with other Shakespeare plays; it’s another exploration of Roman affairs that serves as a follow-up to Julius Caesar and it has a Romeo and Juliet love affair at the centre that crosses divides and tests allegiances. Even the conclusion of the play, where exaggerated reports of Cleopatra’s death lead to Antony and then Cleopatra taking their own life reminds one of the finale of Romeo and Juliet, but there’s one big difference here. Antony and Cleopatra is one of Shakespeare’s later plays and the two lovers are much older than their teenage counterparts in Verona. The uncommon middle-age love affair, between two powerful historical figures moreover, does however add an extra edge of intensity here that proves to be a fascinating area for the dramatist to explore.

They might be two of the most powerful people on the planet, but Shakespeare humanises both Antony and Cleopatra in the childish glee they seem to take in each other’s company. At their age, acting like love-struck teenagers, they come across as a bit of an embarrassment to their friends and colleagues. “The triple pillar of the world transformed / Into a strumpet’s fool“, is how Antony is described, and there are stronger words frequently employed to describe Cleopatra. Considering such descriptions and the eventual fate that befalls them where the blinding passion that each has for the other leads to their inevitable downfall, suggests that Shakespeare does indeed regard such behaviour as not in keeping with the positions and age of both Cleopatra and Antony, but it’s not quite as simple as that.

It is vital however to consider that the nature of their relationship and their behaviour is worrying to both Rome and Egypt. At the start of the play, Octavian Caesar is incensed that his triumvir Antony is ignoring his orders and having a ball with his exotic lover the Queen of Egypt, while he is fighting an internal battle with Sextus Pompey who has joined forces with Fulvia, Antony’s wife and some notorious Mediterranean pirates. Matters of state have lost all meaning and importance for Antony, but the news of the death of Fulvia has to be taken seriously, so Antony returns to Rome to face Caesar. Strangely, once back in Rome, away from the enchantments of Cleopatra, Antony agrees to make up for his Egyptian dalliances and show his loyalty to Rome by marrying Caesar’s sister, Octavia.

Does he think he can keep a political marriage separate from his lover in Egypt? Is he that naive or has he really become soft from Cleopatra’s bed and lost his wits? He must be mad if he thinks that Cleopatra will take the news well. It’s perhaps the most important stage of the play, where Shakespeare really challenges the audience to consider the human failings or just the human feelings that lie at the heart of both Cleopatra and Antony, and then judge whether they really are fools or just in love. Cleopatra’s mercurial shifts between concern and rage against the poor messenger bringing the news of Antony’s marriage to Octavia are legendary, but her actions, as well as those of Antony, are all too believable.

It’s a key moment in the play in another way, since it establishes just how the characters are depicted as a whole in terms of direction and performance. In Jonathan Munby’s production for the Globe, it’s admirably and characteristically well played, without over-emphasis, giving you the force of Shakespeare’s text pretty much straight. Most importantly, both Clive Wood and Eve Best are cast well to come close to the real age of the two leading figures. It’s important that their relationship is not viewed as one of glamorous celebrities or innocent young love. It can be viewed more as a mid-life crisis for both, but the love they have for each other is no less passionate than that of Romeo and Juliet. In fact, it’s potentially even more tragic.

It’s not so much that love weakens Mark Antony as much as such a passionate love at his age means more to him than affairs of state, and thus weakens him in the eyes of younger, hungrier career men like Pompey and Caesar. The measure of this is in how Antony even botches his attempt to take his own life, coming across as weak and foolish even in death. As for Cleopatra, her historical position as a ruler is not explicitly laid out in Shakespeare’s play, but it is similarly tenuous. In Antony and Cleopatra, she is depicted more as all woman, or all women, if you like. There’s a danger in making such a figure larger than life, but the writing, and particularly Eve Best’s playing of the role here, makes it just thoroughly dynamic across the range of human and female emotions. It is one of the greatest female characters in all Shakespeare plays.

What is also interesting about Antony and Cleopatra is, as one of Shakespeare’s later plays, it has a distinct rhythm and structure of its own that is perhaps dictated by the subject itself. The plays flits between the exotic decadent splendour of Egypt and the formal militarism of Rome (with Jolyon Coy a wonderfully petulant Caesar) in a continuous sequence of almost movie-like rapid cut edits, some of which even overlap. The Globe is traditionally good at such pacing since it usually dispenses with complex scene changes and large props. Director Jonathan Munby does actually manage to bring in more scene-setting props than usual here, but without taking away from the all-important rhythm of the play, and it works the dynamic well.

The tone is a little questionable in one or two scenes – I wasn’t fond of Antony’s suicide being played for laughs – but it makes up for that in attention to the dynamic it creates as a whole. One good touch was seeing Phil Daniels playing Enobarbus as the Fool to Antony’s Lear, telling the Roman commander what he doesn’t want to hear. This comes across particularly well in lines like “‘Tis better playing with a lion’s whelp / Than with an old one dying“, which just seems to sum up all that is dangerous about Antony’s position, Antony’s love and what lies in store in the latter part of the play. What counts, as it so often does in Shakespeare, is defining that essential ‘in-between’ space between that dynamic, and the Globe’s 2014 production uses Daniels’ Enobarbus well to establish that space and leave it open for all its many implications.

Globe on Screen’s Antony and Cleopatra is released on DVD by Opus Arte. The DVD is dual-layer and encoded in NTSC format for international compatibility. The disc is region-free.

Disappointingly, the Globe on Screen productions have only been released on DVD for the last few years and that’s still the case for the 2014 productions of Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Titus Andronicus. In the case of Antony and Cleopatra the video quality is reasonably good within the limits of the NTSC Standard Definition encoding of a live theatre performance. The image is relatively clear and certainly good enough for standard sized screens. Anyone more used to High Definition presentations on larger screens will find that the detail isn’t all there and colours are a little oversaturated. Depending on the display device being used and the size of the screen, macroblocking, grain-shifting and instability of the encoding may also cause minor fluctuations. This has been more evident in other releases than it is here though, the Antony and Cleopatra DVD holding up much better than some of the other DVD transfers of the Globe productions.

The audio tracks are plain Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. The recording of the live performance is good, the dialogue never less than clear and perfectly audible. There are no radio mics used as far as I can see, just whatever microphones are dotted around the stage. It can be difficult then to get a good level between music and dialogue in some productions, but they are well balanced here.

Optional white subtitles are available for hard of hearing, or should you just enjoy reading the text, which is always worth exploring. In contrast to previous releases, subtitles are in English only with this batch of releases. On the disc itself, the only extra feature is a Cast Gallery. The enclosed booklet has an interesting essay by Andrew Hadfield that considers events in England at the time of the writing of the play (1606/07) and whether it relates to the drama Shakespeare depicts in Rome and Egypt.

The attractions of Antony and Cleopatra aren’t the traditional ones of a love story in a time of war and it’s debatable whether the play is a match for Shakespeare’s other Roman plays, but it has several unique qualities in treatment and construction that make for interesting viewing. And, as The Globe reliably show, four hundred years after it was written, it’s still great drama that works well on the stage and has something meaningful to speak to a modern audience.


Updated: Sep 18, 2015

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