Antony and Cleopatra - RSC

Antony and Cleopatra

William Shakespeare
Dir: Iqbal Khan
Cast: Antony Byrne, Josette Simon, Ben Allen, David Burnett, James Corrigan, Patrick Drury, Amber James, Kristin Atherton, Andrew Woodall

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Antony and Cleopatra is structurally and linguistically one of Shakespeare's more difficult plays, with a subject that is also somewhat atypical. It helps if you have some idea of the historical events that have brought Mark Antony, one of the Triumvirate of Roman rulers, to become romantically involved with Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt. "Romantically involved" however is a very clinical and un-Shakespearean way of describing the depth of passions that would lead to Antony neglecting his duty as a Roman soldier and becoming what Shakespeare describes in the introduction as the "triple pillar of the world transformed into a strumpet's fool", a failing that leads to the spectacular downfall of two of the world's greatest rulers and lovers.

History will give you some idea of the scale of the importance and power of the individuals concerned and the significance of the two more mature lovers suddenly starting to act like lovesick teenagers later in their life, but principally, the nature of their love is contained in the richness of the language that Shakespeare uses in Antony and Cleopatra. It's also contained in the elaborate structure of the play with its almost cinematic jump cuts to short scenes taking place in locations thousands of miles apart and which in real-life unfold over the course of a decade.

Antony and Cleopatra is a historical drama and a love story, but evidently it's more than that. It's also a story of power, and not just in the traditional conflict between love and duty, but about human nature and how it responds to the force that the power of love confers on them. Antony and Cleopatra takes this to a dimension beyond the lovestruck couple and significantly brings in Octavius Caesar, Pompey and Enobarbus, whose ideas of duty and the exercise of power proves to be at odds with that of Antony and Cleopatra. This not only presents another angle on their love affair, but it has wider implications relating to the rise and fall of great leaders in history, in Shakespeare's time and in the world today.

The rapid scene shifts, the contrasting elements and deep conflicts suggest that there's a strong dynamic at work in the drama and that's really where the direction and interpretation of the play on stage can make a difference in what has been a historically challenging Shakespeare play to put on. Iqbal Khan has limited sets to work with in his adaptation for the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon, using some of the sets common to the other Rome plays in the 2017 Summer Season (playing alongside Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus), but he puts them to good effect, bringing out an additional dynamic through the direction of the actors and in the use of music specially composed for the production by Laura Mvula.

All of these factors contribute to an intense reading of the play at the RSC, but not to the extent that seems to get to the heart of its passions, language and rhythms in a way that can really bring the text to life.

While the RSC's Titus Andronicus was a little more creative with the sets, like Julius Caesar, Khan keeps the drama of Antony and Cleopatra in its original period. Lighting contrasts the heat and passion of Egypt with the stormy no-nonsense skies of imperial Rome, while the background Roman pillars common to the RSC Rome productions changes to Egyptian obelisks when a curtain is draped in front of them. Laura Mvula's music cues also help establish a sense of location and mood, Egypt characterised in the early scenes by harps, lyrical choruses and floating arrangements, while Rome is all marching percussion, crashing guitar chords and blaring percussion. By the second half of the work, the distinctions become less obvious, matching the conflicting priorities and world-views of Cleopatra and Mark Antony.

Antony Byrne and Josette Simon certainly capture a sense of the enormous tidal forces of love, anger and jealousy that are a result of the seismic activity we are led to believe takes place in the bedroom of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. They are most famously and successfully brought out in Cleopatra's rapid changes of mood when confronted by a messenger bearing both good and bad news, or when deciding which demeanour to adopt while waiting on the arrival of Antony. Without denigrating young love, this is an entirely different kind of love from the one Shakespeare writes about in Romeo and Juliet, and you get a real sense from Byrne and Simon of how important it is to both parties; a recognition not only that is this love like nothing they have experienced before, but that they will never experience anything like it ever again.

That's there very much in the performances, but not so much in the delivery of the text, in how it flows and makes it come to life. Khan allows the actors to introduce pauses and vary the intensity of delivery of the text in order to bring emphasis and dynamic, but it often leads to shouting and wheedling child-like sarcasm, neither of which really bring out the meaning of the tricky language which is better found in its natural rhythms. A shouty Octavius Caesar also suffers from screaming too much, but when Ben Allen is more reflective upon hearing the news first of the death of Antony and later of Cleopatra, he finds the right kind of imperious, formal faux-gracious speech-like delivery in his tributes to them. Andrew Woodall as the common man with a sense of honour Enobarbus, tended to strike the right note and tone much better throughout, I found.

A new production with new actors always reveals new ways of picking through all the various themes and ways of regarding Antony and Cleopatra, and it's sometimes more useful to look at what it tells you now rather than how you think it matches up to past productions. What stands out in Josette Simon's performance, and in how it works alongside Antony Byrne, is not so much how it illuminates the mercurial nature of Cleopatra, but in how it demonstrates how far away Shakespeare has come from his depiction of women in The Taming of the Shrew. Not that it's fair to compare a comedy with a tragedy, but even Romeo and Juliet can't match the mystical delights and rich poetry that capture the essence of a woman in love in the way that he describes the Queen of Egypt in Antony and Cleopatra.

The RSC's 2017 production of Antony and Cleopatra was recorded on stage at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon during a live transmission to cinemas. Available now on DVD and Blu-ray, it comes across well on the small screen, with a fine High Definition image and stereo and surround sound options that carry the text across clearly. Extras on the disc include a full Director's Commentary by Iqbal Khan with Assistant Director Zoe Ford. Other extra features include interviews with the cast and Laura Mvula on the composition of the musical score. BD and DVD are region-free. English subtitles only are included.

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