In his recent end-of-year round-up, my colleague Alastair Macaulay rightly bemoaned the increase in Director's Theatre. Steven Pimlott's RSC production of Antony And Cleopatra, which has now entered the Barbican repertoire from Stratford, is a case in point: its strengths are almost entirely those of acting, its weaknesses those of conception.
Alan Bates rumbles and shambles wonderfully as a bibulous Antony who is all too conscious that he has seen better days. So insecure is he even about his place beside Cleopatra that Bates's Antony not only has the messenger from Octavius whipped rather than accept his terms of surrender, but then tortures him with repeated, sadistic attentions to the stripes on his back. Frances de la Tour is a playful, self-dramatising Cleopatra, but maturely sardonic rather than fausse-coquettish. Malcolm Storry's Enobarbus speaks with the licensed bluntness of a long-serving lieutenant, but is plainly a man even more ill at ease with himself than Antony. Guy Henry's Octavius begins with tedious aridity and rapidly metamorphoses into a cold, hard warrior-politician. These are first-rate performances all.
Preparing for her finale, de la Tour enters bare-faced, so to speak, and dons both formal Pharaonic make-up and golden robe, beneath which she is visibly, even ostentatiously naked. This is the culmination of a vein of imagery of the lovers as self-conscious performers... or would be its culmination if Pimlott had not directed his actors, on their characters' deaths, to rise and walk slowly off the stage – backwards, in Antony's case; the deceased Cleopatra is even walked off by Dolabella. Whilst the symbolism of such a final exit is intellectually understandable, it remains a device more associated with smaller, more constrained companies who need to get their actors off so that they can return in another guise. (I had seen exactly the same tactic employed for those very reasons the previous evening in an eight-person Hamlet). On the Barbican stage it looks faintly embarrassing.
Yolanda Sonnabend's design, too, emphasises the aspect of staginess, dominating the playing area with three huge semi-transparent mirrors. Indeed, the stage is the only real setting for any of the action; although Sonnabend has constructed galleries and visible closets for actors half-offstage, no other location is even adequately suggested. Scenes in Rome and Egypt alternate in the same space so that at one or two points one loses track of where Antony is actually supposed to be situated; the final business of Cleopatra immured in her monument – designated, at most, by a "magic circle" of salt on the stage – is at times frankly ludicrous in its inconsistency. Pimlott seems to be demanding that we use our imaginations whilst being unwilling or unable to use his own to resolve such problems; to ask us to accept the story as theatre without paying enough attention himself to the mechanics of its theatricality. Luckily, the central performances are all powerful enough to counterpoise this High Concept gimmickry.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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