Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon – until 9 September 2017
Some evenings, often here at the RSC, three and a half hours pass in a flash leaving you dazed, affected and tearfully glad to have been there. Not this. After the bracing Julius Caesar, this second in the Roman season picks up – very nicely – design details like he Forum’s pillars and the statue of a lion savaging a horse now high above. Robert Innes Hopkins also creates a credible Egypt alongside it, with Cleopatra’s stiflingly exotic interiors (dig that 7ft sacred cat!) and the pillars of Alexandria remind us pleasingly of our own Needle on the Embankment. It opens with a wild masked dance and Cleo and her man rising on a platform, still a-romping, in a tangle of sheets and flowing nightwear.
So we settle contentedly to the epic tale of disastrous cross-cultural love, of Antony’s dereliction of “Roman thoughts” and the Egyptian queen’s magnetism, defeat and demise. But goodness, Iqbal Khan’s production is slow! Keeping a long text is fine, respecting the complicated politics, betrayals and battles; so is it fine to let a production relax into a few dances, fights, and drinking-bouts.
But even without Antony’s famously protracted death it feels constipatedly slow (everyone else dies briskly after one good stab, but he lasts long enough to be triple-stabbed , manhandled around and hauled up the Monument in an unlikely manner without even dripping any blood. After James Corrigan’s mesmerically fascinating Mark Antony in the last play, we now have him relegated to being Agrippa while here the Roman lover is Antony Byrne: middle-aged, thickset and powerful as a ginger-bearded bull. He bellows like one too, at times, indeed is far better in rage than in love. The other Romans are good too – especially Andrew Woodall’s rough-spoken Enobarbus. Making him a bit geezerish was a good stroke, because it gave an extra poignancy to his descriptions of Cleopatra’s magnetic and exoticism “The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne..” . It is one of the few moments when you remember how lyrical the play is.
The weak spot is Cleopatra herself. Josette Simon is on her fifteenth RSC appearance, was a fine Rosaline and Isabella, is experienced, physically astonishing (tall, lithe, a fine mover). She is intelligent too, has talked of her research and reflection on the character and position of this ancient queen. An interviewer the other day, who can’t have yet seen her Cleopatra, talked of her “rare gift for stillness”.
Therefore having seen it, I can only point a trembling finger of bitter blame at the male director. Who must have lost his usual judgement and encouraged her to play it as a cross between a non-singing Eartha Kitt and everybody’s nightmare classmate, the Most Annoying Girl In The School. Oh, the writhing! The capering! The silly voices killing the lines and the meaning, the sexy, playful kittenishness which has to illustrate “O happy horse to bear the weight of Antony” by pretending to ride on Charmian. Oh, the self-absorbed one-note vamping!
In the interval, to be fair, I canvassed some men as to whether this was indeed the kind of woman to whom they were drawn like moths to a flame. After a moment one said “Well… legs to die for, character to die OF”.
This hectic performance, and Byrne’s stumping solidity, means there is no credible chemistry between the lovers. Unless one makes the simple, possibly valid, assumption that every drama queen likes a thug and vice versa. In the second act, Antony finds a certain nobility (in between the bull-bellowing). And at last, at the very very last, Simon herself is allowed to deploy that gift for queenly stillness. And briefly it is moving. But after feeling one’s fingers itch for a venomous asp all evening, its arrival is, frankly, welcome.