Vanessa Redgrave not only plays the third Cleopatra of her career, but directs and designed the concept of this frustrating, incoherent production in which her evident vision of the world of the play swamps the work itself.
This is a putrescent society. A beggar huddles near the rostrum which serves as the Egyptian court, craving alms. Cleopatra is concerned above all with retaining power for herself and her line – her gambolling with Antony is hollow and almost embarrassing. Paul Butler's Antony is so low-key that one wonders how such a man could ever have been one of the triumvirate controlling the Roman empire.
Shakespeare's text is dealt a severe blow by Redgrave's casting. Her international company is in many cases simply unable to give spirit to the lines. I would suspect under-direction but for the obviously deliberate decision to have Charmian (Hélène Patarot) lapse sporadically into French. Nor is this the only such whimsy. Lepidus is taken literally blind drunk after a banquet, at the end of which Pompey himself is stabbed. The supposedly staid Octavia (Aïcha Nathalie Kossoko, giving one of the strongest performances of the evening) goes into a dance more seductive than the Egyptian queen's.
Thematic ideas jostle with the text on a stage where the setting of scenes is seldom alluded to. Amid the bewilderment, Howard Sadler's Octavius impresses largely by default. Only after Antony's death does Redgrave begin to show Cleopatra's passion, but these last gleams of a setting sun are far too little to illuminate the murk preceding them.
Written for the London Evening Standard.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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