The stage is set with soft wash blue and golden light, the band cajoles us with calypso music and a pair of grand classical columns exotically impose on the space of the Swan Theatre’s stage. Commissioned, as the programme notes, by artistic director Gregory Doran’s predecessor Michael Boyd, this production of Antony and Cleopatra is co-produced by the RSC with two American theatres and the company includes both British and American actors. The tragic story of intense passion that wrenches two hearts apart and reunites them together, across war zones and power struggles, and nations and political marriage, has resonated in popular culture through the ages.
Richard Burton and Elizabethan Taylor famously played Mark Antony and Cleopatra, in the 1963 film Cleopatra. It is famous for being one of the most expensive films ever made, but what drew the crowds was the couple’s turbulent and public off-screen relationship begun during filming, recently made into a docu-drama for the BBC. The moral scandal and expense that almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox brought the film bad publicity, but it eventually won four Academy Awards and immortalised Richard and Elizabeth’s relationship, in fact making them almost synonymous with the characters.
Now, of course, Shakespeare’s play exists on an entirely other plane to a huge-budget, stellar-cast film. But the driving force of Shakespeare’s plot is the burning flame of passion between the title characters; everything revolves around their absolute unbreakable bond of intense lust and unconditional love. The central relationship in the text has the same power as Richard and Elizabeth’s, and unfortunately for the RSC, in their production the sexual tension, absolute yearning and dramatic chemistry was sadly lacking, nay even absent. Jonathan Cake playing Antony is ripped and tall and appears mismatched with the small, unconvincingly seductive Joaquina Kalukango as Cleopatra.
What the RSC have called Tarell Alvin McCraney’s ‘radical new version’ of the play, has managed to lose all of its dramatic impact and most of its lucidity and beauty of speech, ruined further by actors apparently unacquainted with verse-speaking. Script alterations aside, the design relocates the characters from Egypt to Saint Dominigue on the eve of revolution, with unexplainable use of a voodoo doll, some lovely falsetto-singing by Chivas Michael as Maridan and an underused pool of water upstage, where we first see Cleopatra bathing.
The concept made the Egyptian queen and her entourage Haitians, and the Romans became French colonialists dressed in Napoleonic garb, which at times left an uncomfortable postcolonial taste in the mouth. McCraney has possibly tried, and failed, in setting his Anthony and Cleopatra in a nation fighting for independence, to deal with the trap of orientalising the characters in the play. This failure was especially apparent in the interpretation of Cleopatra.Joaquina Kalukango gave an impressive performance as youthful, wild and angry, but we rarely saw her as believably distraught in her separations from Anthony. Nor could she be imagined leading a nation to victory and she was precociously wet and unsympathetic, even in tragic death.
Indeed, all in all, the death scenes failed to move me, at all. I was tempted to laugh as Antony went through the motions of suicide, even catching another audience member’s eye across the thrust stage, who had turned aside to smother a smirk. The pot of snakes was pitiful, but at least they could use that very expensive looking pool of water to fill up the urn.
The supporting cast fair better evaluation than the tragic lovers, with bold narration from Enobarbus (Chukwudi Iwuji), in Samuel Collings’ public-school superiority as Octavius and Henry Stram’s nervous, scholastic Lepidus.
For some unbeknown reason, Enobarbus came on to introduce the setting of each scene; this first assumed the audience’s absolute ignorance of the play, or indeed their inability to deduce from the acting where the setting was. This seems to have missed the point that the original Elizabethan stage didn’t have fancy set changes either; the language Shakespeare gives us is perfectly adequate for deducing a removal from Egypt to Rome. These little patronising asides to the audience were not merely unnecessary, but irritant too.
I wonder how the production will fare in America; better than here, I suppose, though it wouldn’t be difficult.
Antony and Cleopatra is playing at the RSC until 30 November.