Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 10 May, 2010

The press night of Michael Boyd’s production was postponed for three weeks due to injury. Its rescheduling provided numerous fortuitous parallels between the modern-dress action onstage and the political drama unfolding outside the theatre. In Antony, we see the grizzled old leader who suffers a slow but steady haemorrhage of loyalty yet still tries to thunder on until too late, and even botches his suicide; in Octavius Caesar, the (comparatively) younger opponent, more composed, a cooler tactician and better at selling plausible nonsense when required; and in Cleopatra... who or what? Possibly the Mother of Parliaments itself, seduced by one major figure but then under pressure from the other until... well, the analogy can’t be pressed too far.
The comparisons seemed all the more compelling because, alas, the production doesn’t. Even sitting in the front row, close enough to read the size markings on Cleopatra’s handmaidens’ espadrilles (Charmian has bigger feet than Iras), I felt oddly distanced from proceedings. Darrell D’Silva, his fingers still bandaged after his revolver mishap, is a first-rate actor with both the magnetism and the power required to play Antony, yet somehow neither manifests. This is a somewhat trivialised Antony. In Act IV, the night before the final battle with Octavius’ forces, Antony’s soldiers hear a strange noise under the earth: one explains, “’Tis the god Hercules, whom Antony lov’d,/ Now leaves him.” Boyd inexplicably changes the god to Bacchus, and the noise sounds like a bunch of drunken revellers going on somewhere at closing time.
Kathryn Hunter, too, clearly contains in her petite frame all the skills and range necessary for portraying the mercurial yet charismatic Cleopatra, with force of personality supplying the sense of beauty and captivation which her unconventional looks might not obviously do. And she gives a fine performance, but that’s the problem: it is a performance. This is “Kathryn Hunter presents Cleopatra” rather than Cleopatra herself. She is not hammy or ostentatious, just a couple of steps removed from the person of the queen. John Mackay as Octavius and Brian Doherty as Antony’s lieutenant Enobarbus inhabit their performances to a greater extent, but at times – and puzzlingly – the production has scarcely more life in it than the obviously rubber asps in the final scene.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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