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A CurtainUp London Review
Antony and Cleopatra
Kathryn Hunter, a wiry, veteran actress of large reputation and small stature is a puzzling choice for the great beauty that was Egypt. Whereas we can believe that Darrell D'Silva's Antony was once a great general, Michael Boyd's production is both challenging and calls for us to use our imagination. The overall effect for me was like one of those pieces of modern art which make you laugh but at the same time reflect on your emotional interaction with the artwork. Whatever else she is, Kathryn Hunter is no Liz Taylor. With her bony arms, largish hands and wrists working overtime,s she flirtatiously expresses the autocracy of an absolute monarch.
With a fearful irony on Press Night, Enobarbus (Brian Doherty)'s beautiful barge speech followed by the lines "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety . . ." was ruined by the sounding of a fire alarm, startled into life by an unthinking smoke detector which presumably had not gone off at preview. I remember Jasper Britton, when similarly rudely interrupted at Hampstead Theatre during a production of Noel Coward's Private Lives, joking that it was the "BAD ACTING" alarm! With the noisy projectile vomiting of an audience member evident on Press Night for Romeo and Juliet last week during the tomb scene, one is wondering whether The Roundhouse may be building up a reputation for being blighted. We see next week at the Roundhouse The Winter's Tale. Will Hermione's statue crash?
There is still a problem of audibility at The Roundhouse. Michael Boyd's company of ensemble actors uses many with regional accents showing how accessible the Royal Shakespeare Company is to the country as a whole and specifically its regions. However for the opening of Antony and Cleopatra the direction had actors frequently blocked. For instance when Cleopatra instructs that Antony is told of her death and that she should be brought news of how he reacts to this spurious announcement, we were totally unable to see how Antony was reacting. We could hear the noises but was he laughing or crying? It is also difficult to hear some actors with their back to us.
John Mackay's tall, imperious, refined Caesar is not a man of the people. A born aristocrat, his inability to communicate is shown in his disdain for the drunken revelry with the soldiers. Antony is very much at home and joins in but Caesar is stiff and uncomfortable. The comic scenes with Cleopatra are very fine. It is only in the tragedy that we might be watching Carry On Cleo. Cleopatra angles with a fishing rod while her handmaiden Iras (Samantha Young) wiggles on the floor like a fish. We get the idea that Cleopatra had to do a lot of waiting for her Antony to return. There are wonderful scenes when she is brought the news of Antony's marriage to Caesar's sister, Octavia (Sophie Russell) by the toque hatted messenger (James Gale). He has the difficult task of answering her questions about the beauty of Octavia. She says to him in a variation of the shoot the messenger premise, "Though to be honest, it is never good/ To bring bad news: give to a gracious message/An host of tongues; but let ill tidings tell /Themselves when they be felt." Only when Kathryn Hunter smiles can we believe in her beauty but she and Antony never convince as a couple.
I am not terribly keen on the bell tolling at propitious moments in history which punctuates this production. However some of the language must be extra clear because there are phrases I do not remember hearing before like the rather modern comment from Enobarbus, "He will do his Egyptian dish again." I liked the slow motion movement for the whole company as Pompei (Clarence Smith and a beautiful speaker) discusses strategy with Menas (Phillip Edgerley) one of Pompei's followers. Greg Hicks' soothsayer is very commanding and I look forward to his Lear later in the programme.
Cleopatra's handmaidens dress to complement her outfit emphasising the female unit and there is a picturesque scene with blue silk sails billowing in the wind from the door in the curved rusted metallic arch that forms the rear wall of the thrust stage. A platform opens above from within this semi-circle to give another playing level and to double as Cleopatra's citadel. When Cleopatra tells us it is her birthday, the audience to a man were thinking, "Yes but which one?"
Michael Boyd's production challenges our preconceptions and makes us re-examine concepts of beauty, sexuality and power.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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