“Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have immortal longings in me”
Never mind ‘the Scottish play’, it appears that it’s the role of Mark Antony that has some kind of a curse attached to it. Last year saw the Dutch Hans Kesting break a leg before The Roman Tragedies arrived at the Barbican (he delivered a barnstorming performance from his wheelchair), and now Darrell D’Silva is having to perform with his left arm in a sling after suffering severe injuries to his hand after a prop firearm malfunctioned during the technical rehearsal. He has now rejoined the cast after surgery, but press night has been postponed to try and make up some rehearsal time. So my first trip to the Courtyard Theatre at the RSC in Stratford which should have been to one of the final previews actually ended up being earlier in the run than planned.
This is a modern-dress Antony and Cleopatra, featuring guns and suits to tell this great tragic love story of two powerful individuals brought together yet unable to escape their circumstances. Rome is ruled by a triumvirate (what a great word!) after Julius Caesar’s assassination, yet all is not well. Mark Antony has had his head and heart captivated by the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra and is spending more of his time there than in Rome. Taking advantage of this is the ambitious Octavius Caesar who turns on the third triumvir Lepidus, setting the scene for an almighty showdown between the two rivals.
Kathryn Hunter is quite simply extraordinary. Her Cleopatra is deeply passionate, borderline psychotic and fully aware of her physicality, sensuously winding her body through scenes, tottering around on heels and exerting her presence on all those in her court. There’s a real sense of danger with her Queen, her scenes with the hapless messenger were funny as one would expect, but also filled with menace as there was no doubt she would inflict harm on those who gave her news she did not wish to hear. The “is she taller than me…and low-voiced” scene in particular is imbued with such depth as the diminutive and husky-voiced Ms Hunter demands the reassurances from her sycophants that Antony’s new wife is basically a troll. And what I love about this play is that the focus of the final act is almost entirely on its female protagonist, one might have expected it to finish at the end of Act 4, but Shakespeare grants Cleopatra the real freedom of her own final decisions, away from the influence of all the men around her, and the final show of her strength of her love and also of female solidarity is really quite moving.
In the face of such a performance, Darrell D’Silva would probably still have suffered a bit by comparison had he been firing on all cylinders. That said though, he soldiered manfully through the entire show with his arm in a sling and it made no difference, whatever changes have been necessary to accommodate his injury have been incorporated seamlessly and he delivered a nicely nuanced portrayal of a man torn between the roles of lover and soldier. At first, I thought perhaps he needed more time to develop a stronger chemistry with Hunter, but in retrospect it fits together perfectly as it is often hinted that this is not a relationship of equal passion, Cleopatra needs and loves much more fiercely than Mark Antony whereas he seems just as happy in her chambers as he does than sequestered aboard a ship with his regiment.
But as ever with RSC productions, the ensemble is full of top-quality performances enhancing the work of the principles: standouts for me were John Mackay’s coldly ambitious Octavius, always in a suit rather than the military uniforms of his compatriots and ill-at-ease with every other character save his sister, even whilst sacrificing her to his ambition, Brian Doherty’s Enobarbus, full of humour and wisdom as Antony’s all-important general and Hannah Young and Samantha Young as Charmian and Iras, Cleopatra’s devoted followers, wise to her every mood swing and loyal to the death. There’s even a creepy cameo from the smoke monster from Lost (when you see it, you will know exactly what I mean!)
There’s great use of live music throughout, particularly in the percussion used to create the sound effects, a haunting marimba sound was most effective. The modern day costumes steer wisely clear of evoking national stereotypes (no Elizabeth Taylor type wigs here thankfully), the opulence of Egypt is instead suggested by a lovely range of co-ordinating evening-wear in a vast array of shades sported by Cleopatra’s coterie. I loved the multi-doored drum at the back of the stage (being my first time at the Courtyard, I couldn’t tell if it is always there, but it was highly effective) and the ladders up to the circle, used often by the soldiers, brought the action even closer, in an already impressive intimate auditorium.
It does sometimes feel like there is a requirement to have some sort of dancing element in every RSC production and this was no exception. We were treated to a random dance by the sailors on their ship which was nice enough if a little out of place, it was made worse by the completely misguided attempt to butch it up with some poorly executed breakdancing. We were also treated to some ‘movement’ which seems de rigeur for almost every performance full stop at the moment, but the enactment of the naval battle through the choreographed carrying of paper ships was surprisingly effective.
There’s something magical about going to Stratford-upon-Avon to watch Shakespeare, I’ve been taken there many times before, but not for a few years, and it was great to be able to return there to see what I thought was a close to being stupendous production of Antony & Cleopatra. It’s all the more impressive given the troubles it has had, but things seem to back on track and it can only go from strength to strength. I only hope Mr D’Silva gives himself enough time to heal properly.