FringeReview UK 2017
Iqbal Khan’s Antony and Cleopatra arches its sinews along the lines of Angus Jackson’s Rome season. Josette Simon’s Cleopatra has to triumph and she does. Robert Innes Hopkins designs like his Julius Caesar a traditional capitol but here it’s fully draped like a David evocation. Tim Mitchell and Caroline Burrell’s lighting beats down full Egyptian day and Rome’s lucid intervals with again a David-like gleam. Laura Mvula’s music, jazzy, rock-inflected, and suddenly low-brassed in funereal pomp, is magnificent. The whoosh of lust politics and war gets filtered through Carolyn Downing’s management of the Barbican’s tricky sound.
Anyone who wants the switchback dynamics of this work laid bare need look no further; this is a supremely lucid production. Iqbal Khan’s Antony and Cleopatra arches its sinews along the lines of Angus Jackson’s Rome season. A play by turns opulent, skittish, epic and sprawling absorbs the season’s clarity. But this production adds a mercurial rapacity, a speed and contradictory eddy radiating from Cleopatra herself. Josette Simon has to triumph and she does.
We’re pitched cheekily into Dimitri Tiomkin’s sound-world out of The Fall of Rome; just for a few bars. Laura Mvula’s music, jazzy, rock-inflected, and suddenly low-brassed in funereal pomp, is magnificent, in a play where ‘the Music Ho!’ finds itself dismissed to billiards. The whoosh of lust politics and war gets filtered through Carolyn Downing’s management of the Barbican’s tricky sound.
There’s less a direct analogue to contemporary events than say Julius Caesar, but this work’s implicit citation of names like Syria and vanished ones like Capadocia should give us pause as tanks race across to possess the same dust, and Isis detonate these same Roman monuments. The west might collectively learn Kipling’s ‘Recessional’ with rue.
Certainly Antony and Cleopatra like Julius Caesar departs from the modern-dress Coriolanus (which as a production came later), flaunting a retro-classic look. Robert Innes Hopkins designs like his Julius Caesar a traditional capitol but here it’s fully draped like a David evocation with scarlet pitching its Fall of Rome theme too. There’s a luxury of effects. Unlike Caesar there’s a piston of plinths rising through the floor, including a caldarium steam bath for Patrick Drury’s Lepidus (no actor plays the same character twice in these linked plays). The effect’s dizzyingly opulent. At the crucial sea battles model ships guided by soldiers flirt and engage with each other: then it darkens. At this point a vast sail pitches upstage with a swing of events and props. This is the richest, but still most lucid production of the work I’ve seen: within the swirl there’s no clutter.
There’s light with heat and everywhere the whim of court and military carousal gets etched by the merest look or squabble. Tim Mitchell and Caroline Burrell’s lighting beats down full Egyptian day and Rome’s lucid intervals with again a David-like gleam.
Simon’s Cleopatra isn’t just mercurial; she voices her vocal quick-change so frenetically you sense the danger. There’s a new velocity and a register of voices from old-fashioned sexy contralto (Piaf, Eartha Kitt) through to the stratospherics of Aretha Franklin. Most of all perhaps the burnished tone of the great soprano Leontyne Price – but on speed.
Cleopatra has to be capricious but Simon’s capable of a further degree of casual violence to luckless messengers mixed with frightening acts of clemency. From ‘widow’ good to ‘thirty’ not, of Antony’s new wife Octavia there’s a premonitory flinch from the messenger. Cleopatra here’s a performative act calibrated by Cleopatra herself, a queen conscious of a role where such caprice is built in out of sheer survival tactics and played to the hilt of Antony’s or any other man’s sword. It’s a wearying desperation beyond even Cleopatra’s natural temperament however dolphin-like in her delights she is (never mind the imagined Antony’s).
There’s never a time though she intends to rest this whirl of assertion save in death. Each speech she renders distinct with her flipside, most skittishly in evidence when Cleopatra feigns illness with her sides of nature not supporting grief, then nature showing its true side in a comic beat. All Cleopatras revel in this: Simon’s energy is a driven thing apart. Only stripped memorably for death at the end do you feel that Simon’s Cleopatra can be herself; even then she dresses back up for it.
Amber James’ Charmian and Kristin Atherton’s Iras are sucked in as satellites to the centripetal whirl, as they must be, becoming almost comets in the process. They’re flirty, sexy despite their necessary celibacy, and heap humiliation on Waleed Elgadi’s Alexas; like their mistress caring for nought an eunuch has. Atherton’s only slightly more peaceable, dog-like Iras exudes warmth whilst James enjoys a pragmatic glint. She’s almost flirting with the squaddie her last words are addressed to: ‘Ah soldier’ as she makes towards him dying in his arms in an almost erotic swoon, freed of command.
Antony Byrne’s wearier Antony isn’t the calculating lion of the preceding play. He’s satisfyingly grizzled, still vigorous and capable of military dispatch particularly with Andrew Woodall’s superb Enobarbus, a vocally commanding sick-hearted slave or ‘considerate stone’. Byrne’s game keeping-up with Simon admittedly looks exhausting. Antony’s naturally large appetite is never cloyed as Enobarbus says, but in his Roman dealings we see Antony gradually seduced away from ‘the beds i’ the east’ as Rome leads inexorably to him. In Cleopatra’s first flight he’s almost gentle with her. But Byrne’s a solder first and when she compromises him a second time his soldier-triggered wrath explodes to frighten even her. This Cleopatra pushes heedlessly against realpolitik and one of this production’s virtues is to show how each betrays fatally when out of their element: Cleopatra in all combat, Antony at sea.
Antony’s nemesis is a surprise. Ben Allen’s appealing Octavius Caesar is almost too cute for that lean role (he didn’t play Octavian). He can rise to a boyish callousness and there’s something very convincing in his love scenes: with his sister, Lucy Phelps’ Octavia. In a sudden stamp of assertion Octavia smashes down her wedding ring to her brother, like a bondage ended. It’s almost a sexual challenge to the man who loves her alone and you often feel she returns that love, but not her political pawning. The damage is palpable.
Allen’s Octavius genuinely regards Antony too and there seems a stronger bond than can be the case, a complex knot of affections in Octavius marrying (or selling) his adored sister to a man he esteems above all others.
There’s strong profiles with David Burnett’s Pompey, and from Marcello Walton’s Maecenas, James Corrigan’s Agrippa (the Mark Antony of Julius Caesar) Luke McGregor’s roles and in Dhamesh Patel’s Ventidius a memorable flicker of nobility.
This is above all however Simon’s play, with Byrne nobly matching her by the hilt of something at least. There’s a celebratory pathos in the final scenes when after learning of Octavius’ intentions Simon’s Cleopatra is delicately disabused of dead Antony’s splendours, asking if ever there was such a man. ‘Gentle lady, no.’ Even at this late stage, Shakespeare dissolves all our previous assumptions. This production allows us to see them plain. It’s worth the illumination.