Brighton Fringe 2018
I hadn’t picked up a programme before I took my seat for ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’. I only knew that Unmasked Theatre were doing it in a modern adaptation, set in London. But as the action proceeded I kept seeing parallels with the Profumo scandal of 1963.
On my way to get a post-show drink I finally got a look at one – and dammit there she was on the cover. There SHE was. Christine Keeler, the woman at the centre of the storm. Looking directly at us – posed naked but with her modesty protected by the back of the chair she’s straddling. Erotic. Challenging. A wonderful re-do of Lewis Morley’s iconic black and white photograph from the early nineteen-sixties.
The pose was perfect, but instead of Keeler it’s Jessica Flood, who plays a cabaret dancer in this version. Called, of course – Cleopatra. The real Cleopatra brought about the downfall of Mark Antony, powerful Roman politician, while Christine Keeler did the same to John Profumo, Secretary of State for War in Harold Macmillan’s government.
Unmasked Theatre say in the programme notes that Shakespeare’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ is the perfect vehicle to explore the Profumo story. Luke Ofield and Pip O’Neill also ask us to ‘forgive their departing from the original text and source material’. I think they’re right – both stories are about powerful men brought down by their own weakness and hubris. Like a Greek tragedy.
Talking of which – the Rialto stage was set up as a club, with intensely coloured lighting on the curtains at the back of the stage, and two small tables set down on the floor at the front. The club’s got a wonderful MC – to welcome us and to get the evening rolling. Paddy Hall played him enthusiastic, but with a touch of cynicism. There was something of a Greek Chorus in the way he commented on events.
Then two guys in smart suits came down the aisle and stood in front of the stage. Quite an immersive experience – I really had the impression of being in a club as they squeezed past us to sit at one of the tables. It’s Domitius Enobarbus, he’s a colleague of Mark Antony and he’s brought the other man to the club to introduce him to one of the dancers. Mark Antony and Cleopatra hit it off immediately – it’s obviously going to lead to a passionate affair.
We’re seeing two stories simultaneously here, of course. Well, actually three – Unmasked Theatre’s production mashes together Mark Antony’s Roman Empire with Profumo’s sixties London, and gives us their own take on top. So Enobarbus is the equivalent of Stephen Ward, a well-connected London osteopath (and – let’s not mince words here – pimp) who’s brought John Profumo along to introduce him to Christine Keeler.
Profumo was married, so a sexual liaison would have been damaging to his career in any event, but the real scandal was that at the time Keeler was also bedding the Naval Attaché from the Russian embassy in London. An obvious Cold War security risk. The furore that followed, and the hysterical press reporting of it, played a great part in the defeat of the Macmillan government the following year.
The Roman Mark Antony’s alliance with the Egyptian queen led to war with his political rival, Octavius Caesar. The modern Mark Antony in this version has rivals too; parliamentary rivals at Westminster, and there was friction and jockeying for power between him and a modern Octavius. To broker some sort of peace, Octavius offers Mark Antony his sister Octavia in marriage, to seal the settling of their differences. Later on, when their relationship has turned sour, Octavia gives the press a tearful interview skewering Mark Antony for his infidelity – “It was a bit crowded in that marriage”. Blimey! Talk about ‘departing from the source material’ – Unmasked Theatre have even stuck in a quote from Princess Diana …
They’re quite shameless in how they’ve used lots of different strands to weave together a production that’s dazzling in its range. Shameless, but very effective. Theatre is almost certainly the best medium to convey this kind of multi-layered story, and this company have used it very powerfully. High energy. Laugh-out-loud funny, but thought-provoking at the same time. Eleven actors on stage, but they kept slipping between roles and I lost count of how many characters I’d seen. Politicians, their henchmen, their supporters and their enemies, as well as journalists – all of them fighting, drinking and plotting against each other in a dizzying succession of short scenes.
The show was done almost as pantomime. As cabaret, too, with great music. Four dancers took to the stage and gave us a some fairly raunchy routines. (it’s obviously the sort of club where sex is never far off the agenda). Jessica Flood as Cleopatra performed, of course, along with Lucy Tebb, Olivia Sewell and Claudia Realer. The girls are ‘The Jewels of The Nile’ and the club’s called ‘Egypt’.
Egypt. The lure of the Orient. Exotic. Sensual. Dangerous, too. Just five years before the Profumo affair the British, along with the French and the Israelis, had invaded the Suez Canal zone, only to have to withdraw their forces in a humiliating climb-down. The Suez debacle brought down a previous Government – Anthony Eden’s. A British politician had rushed in, without thinking of the risks and consequences. Rather like John Profumo.
Politics, played as pantomime. How easily real life turns into farce. John Profumo initially denied the allegations of his affair, and it was the relentless hounding by the Press that finally brought the scandal to a head. The newspaper stories were irresistibly titillating – sex, national security, and politicians caught with their pants down. Just like today. There were hordes of press in this show – the other actors donned raincoats and formed a slithering mass of reporters and photographers, flooding the aisle and spilling onto the stage to get their quotes and their pictures.
‘The perfect vehicle to explore the Profumo story’. A morality tale – with snakes. Shakespeare’s Cleopatra killed herself with snake poison – she let herself be bitten by an Asp. Christine Keeler herself survived, in fact she only died last year, but not everyone did. Stephen Ward was convicted of ‘living off immoral earnings’ and killed himself after his Establishment friends abandoned him.
Seems to me the Press acted like a nest of vipers.