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A CurtainUp London Review
Antony and Cleopatra
by Ben Clover
Frances Barber gives a terrific performance as the Egyptian monarch, realpolitik-bound to seduce every visiting general. She dominates the stage during her scenes the way a queen should and starts the comedy cavalcade moving. Cleopatra's banter with her ladies, often excruciatingly unfunny in other productions, is well realised here. But in this Egypt she is an opportunistic politician who seems more animated by the humiliation of capture by Caesar than she ever was by Antony's pawing. It's all very amusing but not very tragic.
Nicholas Jones' plays the other half of this Classical gas and is more to be pitied than censured as he oscillates between hard-headed Roman political player and middle-aged lover. In the scenes where he intrigues with his old pals he prowls and persuades convincingly. But in others he seems slightly too camp to be the man who had endured terrible privations on campaign or turned to cannibalism when stranded in the Alps. He seems a different man completely amongst the politicians of Rome than among the Egyptian ladies. Maybe this is the point but the transition between the two is too comic for the play most people came to watch.
The couple snog often, with a teenager's enthusiasm and artlessness. This raises a laugh each time but is another way in which the audience fails to take them seriously as characters. Perhaps this pair made fools by love should be laughed at, especially the upright Roman, but it does make it a bit difficult to care what happens to them. Yet there are moments when the comedy takes a grotesque turn that would have delighted Shakespeare's contemporaries. When the mortally wounded Antony asks to be taken to his Queen he is hoisted up to her balcony like a half-butchered boar. The image is cruel but effective as a bizarre reference to the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet.
The rest of the cast are very capable with Fred Ridgeway's Enobarbus and Jack Laskey's pubescent-esque Caesar standing out. Antony's rival is a peevish teenager who seems thoroughly disgusted by his Egyptian antics. But annoying as he is, this production doesn't make him loathsome enough to amplify our sympathy for the central couple. Enobarbus's suicide is rendered especially poignant when you consider how erratically Antony acts after meeting the Queen of the Nile. Any loyal employee would consider defection when his general's post-battle speeches sound like a dotcom millionaire's lunchtime pep talks. The rest of the lower orders get their teeth into the lines, especially when slagging off their love struck boss. One likens Antony to "a doting mallard" as his flagship follows Cleo's from the frontline at the crucial battle.
But although the cast excel at mirth-making Antony and Cleopatra is a tragedy and this production was something else. Only when the captured and soon to be betrayed Cleopatra takes her own life do we get a real stab at the seriousness of the situation. Before that the tone erred in the direction of TV soap Dallas -- dislikeable people betraying one another hilariously. It was a lot of fun but seemed to be in the Nile about its status as a tragedy.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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