thu 18/07/2024

Antony and Cleopatra, RSC, Barbican review - rising grandeur | reviews, news & interviews

Antony and Cleopatra, RSC, Barbican review - rising grandeur

Antony and Cleopatra, RSC, Barbican review - rising grandeur

Coquetry and tragic command not quite balanced, but this steady RSC production reaches glory

Stretched to extremity: Josette Simon as Cleopatra, Antony Byrne as Mark Antony Helen Maybanks © RSC

Is there a key to “infinite variety”? The challenge of Cleopatra is to convey the sheer fullness of the role, the sense that it defines, and is defined by only itself: there’s no saying that the glorious tragedy of the closing plays itself out, of course, but its impact surely soars only when the ludic engagements of the first half have drawn us in equally.

Monarchs, in the words of Shakespeare’s contemporary John Webster, may “brook no contradiction”, but this Egyptian Queen practically demands it – including self-contradiction, most of all. In Antony and Cleopatra we have a heroine who is far more seductress than the accomplished broker of diplomatic alliances that history has recorded her as, but the right balances between private and public, caprice and dignity are crucial.

I’m not convinced that Josette Simon, returning to the RSC after a long absence, quite achieves that range, although her late scenes are as powerful as any I have seen. Just as I’m not certain that Iqbal Khan’s production, transferring to the Barbican as part of the company’s Rome MMXVII season, fully captures the sheer seductive languor that is Egypt (pictured below), the femininity that caught the heart, and disarmed the discipline of masculine Rome, persuading Antony to disregard his duty of power and the triumvirate alike.

Transformation is the key to Josette Simon’s performance 

That's partly because the Roman scenes work so well here, with an atmosphere that, for all their traditional costuming in togas and doublets, persuasively suggests a more contemporary power play. As Mark Antony (Antony Byrne) and Octavius (Ben Allen) – the former hot from Alexandria, the latter fresh from the baths (lower picture) – meet to parlay their alliance, they could be tycoons engaged in some boardroom conspiracy, their concealed rivalries contrasted by the easy familiarity of their lieutenants, Enobarbus (Andrew Woodall) and Agrippa (James Corrigan).

And what a treat Khan makes of the festive truce gathering on board Pompey’s vessel, with Pompey himself, played by David Burnett, such an attractive fount of impulsive energy (a Roman Hotspur, indeed, with an ebullience from which elsewhere Antony could well have borrowed a note or two). It has the feel of some post-deal management get-together, all-male obviously, with the tipsy elder Lepidus (Patrick Drury) comically abandoning his dignity in a wealth of bewildered and bewildering questions, the stand-offish Octavius keeping his silent counsel, and Pompey’s nobility refusing to countenance the cunning treachery offered him. Antony & Cleopatra, RSC, BarbicanRobert Innes Hopkins’s design excels in that scene, which becomes a kind of celebratory pageant, and also does the lion’s share of defining the different atmospheres of Egypt and Rome. The former is dominated by an enormous ruffled hanging drape, its deep red hue catching the sumptuousness of the exotic South, complete with huge cat figures and lighting from Tim Mitchell that achieves beautiful modulations of gold, the latter, with strict back-stage columns that have a whiff of totalitarianism to them, by its sharpness of space. Then, as the second-half action moves into war, it all transforms, the Egyptian drapery combined with broken plinths of distressed antiquity, a mystery of effect enhanced by back-lighting elements.

And transformation is the key to Simon’s performance too, as she moves from early mocking japery (much more coquettish than commanding), towards final grandeur. That instinct towards skittish mimicry and comic effect never goes away, however, adding contrast even close to death, as Cleopatra memorably turns an imploring remark to the departing Octavius into a rich chuckle. There’s an abruptness to some of the early modulations, and the change of register sets in early, from “Though he be painted one way like a Gorgon” even: Simon definitively lowers her tones, her voice becoming husky, smoky. She’s ever the performer, ranging from early silliness, through teasing melodrama, towards that final, engrossing hush.Antony & Cleopatra, RSC, BarbicanAntony Byrne does not travel so far as Antony – he’s the steady warrior rather than the star, but the ascent of his death scene has real power as this leader of men, one who’s most at ease calling them to feast, confronts solitude. Andrew Woodall’s foil as Enobarbus is delicious, with that occasionally camp, always sardonic wit – “This grief is crowned with consolation” is a line from which he draws out its full glory – moving through laconic despair (“Think, and die”), to the merciless pain he applies to his own final moments.

Setting both off is Octavius, whom Allen plays effectively with a callow craft that mixes sophistry and conniving – a character with none of the range of his opponents in war. As their power ebbs away, their glory of character only grows, in contrast to the new kind of ruler that is Octavius, whom we see transformed in the production’s final moment into a statuary pose, one arm stretched out in empty gesture, a new icon of the new empire. Shakespeare shows us where grandeur lies, and where the everyday, where life gleams rich and golden, and where it has only a shallow, ephemeral patina. It’s to those deeper moods that Laura Mvula’s music, with its washes of sound, vocal anthems, and weighty brass tones, draws us, appreciably helping to move Khan’s production towards eternity.

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters