Roman legionaries pace back and forth as the audience arrive for the RSC's latest production of Antony and Cleopatra. There is a sense of unease, of anxious waiting for the unknown. Is this the precursor to some skirmish in the outlands of the Roman Empire ? Is it an ambush, awaiting the passing trader who will be robbed of all his worldly possessions? Perhaps a maiden will unwittingly fall into these Romans' clutches. The soldiers wait and shrug and wait some more. Suddenly, a figure dressed only in what appears to be a starched white floor-length skirt blusters across the stage, dismissing his warriors' advances, and drunkenly wallowing in post-sexual pleasure. This is the great warrior-general, Mark Antony.
There is an obvious disgust at how their leader has allowed himself to be seduced by the Empress of Egypt, Cleopatra. Nothing is being done. The troops are restless for war and booty. Intrigues at home are cutting off supplies and the sultry seductiveness of Egypt is taking its toll on men more used to swords and arrows than silks and sandalwood. This is the world of Cleopatra's court, a web from which Mark Antony seems unable to escape.
When we first meet Cleopatra, we realise why the general is so besmitten with this Queen of the Nile . Harriet Walter is Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, her imperial majesty reflected in the magnificent profile of this fine actor. Walter is every inch the sexual siren. This is no young flighty princess who worms her way into an older man's heart. This is a queen who uses every charm in her vast experience to entrap and beguile her lover.
Of course, Cleopatra has had lovers before, no less than the Ides of March-murdered Julius Caesar himself. Ever the pragmatist, Cleopatra might pine for her love but this does not prevent her attempting to forge an alliance with his enemy when the situation appears desperate. The reason that Cleopatra takes her life in the end? Not love, but the realization that she will be paraded like a captured trophy through the streets of Rome .
Cleopatra's love-interest, the drunken and equally pragmatic Mark Antony, is superbly played by Patrick Stewart. Stewart's heritage as a stage actor comes to the fore in this wonderful portrayal of male bravado and sensual excess. Stewart oozes a sexuality which complements perfectly Walter's matronly youthfulness. This couple are so believable, their sexual encounters so painfully well observed.
Gregory Doran has directed a superb production from beginning to end. Yet again we are treated to what the Swan Theatre does at its best: provide an intimate environment in which to immerse ourselves in a wonderful plot and even more wonderful performances. The stage is relatively bare but various props and devices conjure royal palaces and storm-tossed ships. Stephen Brimson Lewis's designs and Kandis Cook's costumes add a clarity and immediacy to this wonderful Roman play. The atmosphere is completed by Adrian Lee's music which is full of Eastern promise and passion.
A particular mention has to be given to Ken Bones, who plays the war-weary adjutant to Mark Antony, Enobarbus, and who, in a moment of weakness, betrays his friend's trust. Bones is marvellous in this role, his simple rendition of the speech which describes the first sight the Romans have of Cleopatra's barge is a set-piece of Shakespearean theatre done to perfection. The rest of the cast are equally well-suited to their parts, whether as palace eunuchs or wild Bahamian soothsayers, whether as Roman soldiers spoiling for a fight or Egyptian advisers resplendent in their robes of state.
Cleopatra has to go though, as we all remember from our school days. With the help of a frighteningly realistic asp, this queen dies in such regal splendour, the tragedy is only matched by the visual beauty of her berobed and crowned body on the throne of state. Cleopatra is presented with the agent of her death by Alexas, a despicably seedy character played with such style by Julian Bleach. Bleach is almost as slithery as the asp he brings in the basket. The audience particularly loved this wonderful comic moment.
Antony and Cleopatra is yet another play in the Swan Theatre which shows the RSC at their very best. For the glimpse of two leading actors in the prime of their careers, this production cannot be beaten. This is a seriously sexy, seriously moving production, one worthy of praise. A visual and aural feast from beginning to end and a wonderful partner to Much Ado About Nothing.
© Kevin Quarmby, 2006