The latest Royal Shakespeare screening is a fluid, fast paced ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA starring Josette Simon as Cleopatra and Antony Byrne as Antony.
While the political machinations, battles and titular romance depicted are all historically accurate, most of the action takes place offstage, and the play focuses on the greed, pride, ambition and passion which drive Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt , Mark Antony and Octavius Caesar.
Messengers report the movements of the rivalling triumvirs and the results of unseen battles, making it confusing and difficult to keep up with shifts and twists of the complicated narrative, especially with the huge cast involved.
Iqbal’s Khans production is contemporary in its speech rhythms, almost everything is spoken in a kind of prose, which means that we lose the poetry in Enobarbus’ famous lyrical ‘burnished barge ‘ speech describing the arrival of Cleopatra.
Otherwise this production is clear, fast paced and dynamic, with a huge cast zooming through the various battles. The set, by Robert Innes Hopkins, has various parts that move up and own but features mainly minimalist staging with tall columns and imposing stairs for Rome and a bed and a giant cat for Egypt.
For the Roman scenes there are imposing senatorial togas or the soldiers are grandiose in their heavy armour, while for Egypt it is generally lighter with wonderfully textured robes for Cleopatra and exotic eye makeup.
The Roman scenes also feature a steamy sauna while for Egypt we catch a decadent masked party.The tower/tomb scene at the end for Cleopatra is performed on a risen plinth as if on a rooftop. I was impressed by the use of the model ships for the battle of Actium.
At first mismatched there is great chemistry between the two main eponymous lovers. Simon as Cleopatra is astonishing. She is a perfectly poised chameleon, kittenish, proud, full of feline grace, teasing, mocking , with an incredible vocal and physical range. She hints at an underlying insecurity in Cleopatra.
There is brief nudity towards the end when she changes robes to stoically meet her death. As Cleopatra she reveals her inner Egyptian self, regal to the last. She changes between joyous love, icy anger, despair and laughter to hide tears. Her death is viewed as a fitting, perhaps welcomed crowning culmination. Her handmaidens Iras and Charmain ,(Kristin Atherton and Amber James), are steadfast and loyal caught up in events .
Byrne as Antony is dominated by his love for Cleopatra yet he is also a fiery, bull headed, top flight military commander. He has sudden cruel, violent rages yet we also see his softer, tender side.
Khan’s production highlights Mark Anthony’s personal struggle between his love for Cleopatra and his political duty to Rome.
Mostly the Roman scenes are colder and more formal, the characters moving in neat blocks of formation and where political and military decisions are made the dialogue is fast-paced dialogue, signed ,sealed and delivered quickly.
Antony’s wedding to Octavia, for example, is very stylised. Egypt, however is a decadent, captivating place of romance and pleasure. Antony’s death scene is quite brutal.
Ben Allen’s darkly handsome Octavian is a finely nuanced, captivating performance. He is presented as likeable, astute and perceptive, yet ruthless, always one step ahead of his political rivals.
In this opulent production Rome eventually conquers all at the final curtain as Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) assumes the pose of the famous statue of him.
Running time allow just under 4 hours including interval, interviews and behind the scenes short documentary plus the cinema ads.
The Royal Shakespeare’s production of ANTONY AM Antony & Cleopatra screens at selected arthouse cinemas from the beginning of July.