Standing on the platform at the Barbican tube after the RSC’s performance of Antony and Cleopatra, someone spotted the programme under my arm. “Wasn’t it great?” he said, alight with enthusiasm. “A musical really.”
This probably was not really the RSC’s intention but it does perhaps illustrate the endless inventiveness of the company and their playwright’s depths and complexities, open to so many interpretations. Under Iqbal Khan’s direction, this interpretation is all about seeming. Now Shakespeare’s plays are full of this, people who are not quite what they seem – at their darkest “loyal” Iago, at their most delightful Viola in breeches. In this version of Antony and Cleopatra, though, all of the principal characters are trying to convince those around them – and perhaps most of all themselves – who they really are.
This is true most of Cleopatra, played by Josette Simon as a dazzling, mercurial, feline and capricious, adolescent of a queen, dressed in shimmering robes and constantly turning emotional somersaults mostly for the effects they will bring about on those around her. It is fitting that she dresses herself at her most imperial for her death and later discovery by her conquerors. This is a supremely physical performance and it’s Simon’s night.
Antony, too, though – a fine performance by Antony Byrne, at turns confident general and a man bewildered by the power of his infatuation – is dogged by that most important of Elizabethan qualities, reputation. When he chases after his queen’s ship in his ill-advised naval battle against Augustus, he loses not just the battle but his authority as a leader and thus his self-respect.
Octavius himself (Ben Allen) is not the elder statesmen we know from Robert Graves as the Emperor Augustus but a young unproven member of the ruling triumvirate who have taken over Rome (and so the world) after the assassination of his great-uncle Julius Caesar. The third of this trio is Lepidus – and Patrick Drury is masterly whether he is gravely senatorial or comically drunk. Only Enobarbus (an excellent Andrew Woodall), Mark Antony’s most faithful captain, has a clear-eyed soldierly world-weariness that sees through all the follies and vainglory. At the end, even he, in despair, has to abandon Antony to his fate.
And that music? Composer Laura Mvula opens the evening with a throbbing score and the masked players dance, revealing themselves finally as the Egyptian court and the lovers themselves. Later the score turns from a single female voice to layered textures to the trumpets of war, always played with conviction by the musicians in the boxes that hover above the stage. The staging itself (designed by Robert Innes Hopkins) is simple – a central dais raised and lowered to represent a Roman baths or a lovers’ bed – and, when in Egypt, characterised by swathes of velvet curtain, silken cushions and golden-collared statues, all evidence of that eastern voluptuousness that has drawn Antony away from Rome, and made him the leader led.
In this production, Antony and Cleopatra are not mythic figures but all too human, vulnerable and sometimes even vacuous. Even their great love is open to question. Is it genuine, a game or sheer folly? Enobarbus believes it is the latter but in this production both do finally find both love and dignity in death.
RSC’s Antony and Cleopatra at The Barbican until 20th January 2018. Production images by Helen Maybanks. For more information and tickets please visit the website.