wed 22/03/2017

Antony and Cleopatra, RSC/Roundhouse | reviews, news & interviews

Antony and Cleopatra, RSC/Roundhouse

Antony and Cleopatra, RSC/Roundhouse

Kathryn Hunter's eastern queen shines quirkily in a prosaic production

Kathryn Hunter's Cleopatra: 'A regal, shrewd eastern cousin of Katherina and Beatrice'Ellie Kurttz/RSC

For quirky authority in Shakespeare, Kathryn Hunter is surely up there with Mark Rylance. Her production of Pericles was one of the two best things I’ve seen at the Globe – Rylance in Twelfth Night being the other - her characterisations of Lear and Richard III as compelling as any. Hunter plays Cleopatra as a regal, shrewd eastern cousin of Katherina and Beatrice, making the case for a very human prose which would no doubt work better if the production around which she snakes and sharptongues found a little more poetry in other quarters.

The virtues of this latest transfer from Stratford are clarity and pace: there’s no hint here of the interminable roll towards the death-house monument that so afflicted the low-key Mirren/Rickman Antony and Cleopatra directed by Sean Mathias at the National. But Michael Boyd adds little if any contemporary insight to the original power-play in his conflict of suited bureaucrats with a smattering of Middle Eastern manners. Too much dry ice is always a sign of an atmospheric vacuum, though Wolfgang Göbbel's lighting boldly contrasted the cold light of "Rome" with the sexy airs of Egypt, and Tom Piper's rusting copper tower made a decent background to a clear stage. Unfortunately I cared even less than usual for an intriguers' world well lost, peopled at best by John Mackay's lean and dangerous but one-dimensional Octavius Caesar, at worst by bit-part actors whose words got swallowed up the minute they turned away from the side of the Roundhouse on which I was sitting.

Things began to look up early on with the luxury casting of RSC ensemble member Greg Hicks as a coolly sinister Soothsayer. We could have done with his take on Enobarbus, for Brian Doherty is no poetic oddball but a remorselessly practical man who relays even the famous barge speech prosaically. At least he acquired some gravitas in his shameful desertion, wheareas his master Antony, as played by Darrell D'Silva (pictured below right with Hunter's Cleopatra), moved in the opposite direction: reasonably authoritative, impatient and likeable in the first half, but not so much a caged lion as a bleating lamb in extremis.

rscantcleop0510_006Hunter atoned for his messy end with a special kind of untheatrical dignity I’ve never seen in any other Cleopatra, towering spiritually above the suits who come to enslave her. Even her elegantly couturiered but sometimes mumbling maids (Hannah Young and Samantha Young) came to reflect a certain awed solemnity. The final, quiet farewell was all the more surprising after her capricious toying with the bringer of bad news about her arranged-marriage rival in Rome, the restlessly intelligent watching of others that compelled you to watch her and even the endgame-playing so true to earlier form. Around her the tuned percussion may have had very little effect, the battles raged as cheesily as RSC battles invariably do (slow motion on stage is usually a bad idea) and the councils of war seemed even less interesting than usual. But ultimately it came down to the truthful simplicity of one performer, and for that I’d still say this much-maligned production is worth going to see.

Darrell D'Silva's Antony moved in the opposite direction to his Enobarbus: reasonably authoritative in the first half, but not so much a caged lion as a bleating lamb in extremis

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