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.

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