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.

Joaquina Kalukango (Cleopatra) and Jonathan Cake (Mark Antony), photo: Hugo Glendinning
Joaquina Kalukango (Cleopatra) and Jonathan Cake (Mark Antony), photo: Hugo Glendinning

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.

Bolingbroke (Nigel Lindsay) is defiantly faced by Richard II (David Tennant) as he takes the crown to become Henry IV, in the RSC's production of Richard II (photo: Kwame Lestrade)
Bolingbroke (Nigel Lindsay) is defiantly faced by Richard II (David Tennant) as he takes the crown to become Henry IV, in the RSC’s production of Richard II (photo: Kwame Lestrade)

David Tennant and director Gregory Doran are reunited at the RSC for this sell out run of Richard II, after Tennant’s extraordinary performance of Hamlet five years ago. The tragic history play considers the last two years of Richard II’s reign until his death. It moves from the quarrel of Thomas Mowbray (Anthony Byrne) and Henry Bolingbrook (Nigel Lindsay) to their subsequent banishment and Bolingbrook’s disinheritance before Richard’s tragic decline, deposition and death.

Tennant of course excels in the role of the King, who begins the play with an immature aloofness as he makes grand decisions without apparent thought, backed up by a self-interested inner-circle of advisers. What finally draws us in to sympathise with Tennant’s Richard is his tragic fall into the second half; yet before this he seems arrogant, whimsical and lacking credible or just motivation for denying the banished Bolingbroke his inheritance to fund a war with Ireland. The success of Tennant’s portrayal is that despite this we can ultimately become close to him, particularly when he starts to use humour as a coping mechanism for the threat of Bolingbroke and in his speeches in the second half. Though not usually soliloquies, he often addresses these to us, looking out at the audience, and sometimes purposefully turning his back on the new King. Leaving his back turned to the other characters onstage is an action Tennant uses throughout the play as a symbol of his pride, but in the second half it becomes an act of defiance toward the usurping king, provoking our sympathy at his undoing. This comes to its climax as he gives over the crown to Bolingbroke, flinging it out in his hand and at first triumphantly refusing to face his usurper.

Propelled by the almost sudden madness of its protagonist, The Theatre Royal Bath’s production of King Lear is unafraid by the goriness of retributions and the sexual drives of its characters, in Shakespeare’s tale of familial betrayal and explorations of the mind’s frailty and fragility.

David Haig as Lear, embracing the storm
David Haig as Lear, embracing the storm

Lucy Bailey, who has recently directed two of the Bard’s plays at the RSC: The Taming of the Shrew, set on a giant bed; and The Winter’s Tale, in which the backdrop projection of a tsunami-bear was used to get around that infamous stage direction ‘Exit pursued by a bear.’ Here at The Theatre Royal, Bath, projection again comes into the fore in a sixties gangland setting, with a design by William Dudley that in some aspects is ingenious, but fails to a much greater degree.

Firstly, there are two translucent backdrops placed equidistant on the stage. These were used fantastically to adjust the scene from a swish pub, where the play opened, to the climatic storm. Each backdrop had a large door-like cut-out in the middle. From the centre of the stalls I am certain this set up would have worked fantastically, giving a clear view through the two gaps with each backdrop aligning perfectly. However, from any seats above the stalls, the backdrops were too small for the space with too much of the stage left unused at the sides where the wings would usually be. I’m all too happy to see the workings of the theatre, the stage hands, the props coming on, all those small allusions to Brechtian theatrics that have become engrained in productions today. But where there is more space to use and where, as here, the too-small hanging backdrops become overtly visible in themselves, rather than as primarily clever backdrops for projection, the design details seem flawed. Especially in the Circle, sat to one side, the gaps did not match up to provide a clear view. This didn’t produce any problems with the blocking, naturally the production was much too professional for that, simply the design appeared imperfect, prioritising the more expensive seats with an obviously better sight line.

And I really do like it, if the song on the trailer is anything to go by the production will be beautiful…

A summer garden party played out in slow motion to Marling’s acoustic soundtrack (listen out for this song in Act V Scene II) – encapsulating all that I love about this play – the feeling of carnivalesque liberation away from court, a summertime of hedonistic joy and love discovered in the wilderness.