Royal Shakespeare Company
The Courtyard Theatre
27th May 2010
Antony and Cleopatra
Antony and Cleopatra presents many complicated questions which the successful modern director must answer. On the face of it casting is not one of them. In Shakespeare’s day Antony was seen as Herculean in his stature and this idea is communicated time and again by the text. Cleopatra was simply, of her day, the most beautiful woman in the whole world. Now recent architectural finds have suggested that, judging by her likeness, some of this fame may have been purely legendary but there is no question that is how Shakespeare requires her to be represented.
Now in Shakespeare’s day this was a problem. In the early days of this play’s existence, women were not expected to take up the acting profession and therefore Cleopatra would have been acted by a boy. It is presumed that this is why Shakespeare gave the Queen of Egypt these lines in his fifth act:
“the quick comedians extemporally will stage us, and I shall see some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness i’ th’ posture of a whore.”
Now the days when a woman on the stage was frowned upon us are long past and it has become customary to make the actor playing Cleopatra one who is equal in beauty and sensuality.
For reasons I don’t really understand Michael Boyd chooses to revisit those early casting problems in the current RSC production. Kathryn Hunter, who is cast as Lear’s Fool in a concurrently running production at the same theatre, is neither a traditional beauty and lacks height for a queen who must ask about her rival, Octavia: “Is she as tall as me?”. The recent review in the Telegraph told us that Hunter successfully captures all of Cleopatra’s contradictions. I honestly cannot see how this can be true.
D’Silva and Hunter as Antony and Cleopatra
Ms Hunter’s distance from a conventional modern Cleopatra means that several scenes featuring the queen are successful on a comedic level but lose the drama and pacing that the play seems to require.
I could understand the casting if Mr Boyd was trying to help the audience see how a play of this kind would have looked in Mr Shakespeare’s day but this is a modern dress production – a great distance from the elaborate productions of the Victorian era but also in appearance removed from what we know of the Elizabethan ones.
There is no question that Ms Hunter is a gifted, mercurial and flamboyant actress and that her swarthy looks come close to the “gipsy” that Shakespeare mentions when referring to Cleopatra in the early lines of the play but I feel that the burden of the play’s and the audience’s expectation may be too great a burden for even her to carry successfully.
If so, it is a shame because in many regards there is a lot to commend in this production. In opting for a minimalist stage design and modern costumes Mr Boyd has circumvented the potential problems caused by the play’s scenes constantly switching between Alexandria and Rome. This also keeps our attention on the characters and their development and difficult choices.
Darrell D’Silva (still showing small injuries from an accident with a firearm in rehearsal) is a powerful and forceful Antony although it must be mentioned that there is little sense of sexuality in his contacts with Cleopatra. He is ably supported, on the whole, by John Mackay who has seemed a little swamped in some other recent RSC productions and by Brian Doherty as Enobarbus. Doherty seems to grow into the role as the evening progresses after adding a little too much levity to the style in which he approaches Enobarbus’ early appearances in the play.
Hannah Young as Charmian and Samantha Young as Iras are conventional English beauties and playing Egyptian ladies-in-waiting alongside Kathryn Hunter’s queen raise knotty casting problems which again should have been avoided.
The play’s specific and problematic stage direction that Antony is hoisted up to Cleopatra at the moment of his death is not solved and the laborious way it is handled somewhat overshadows an otherwise successful capturing of Antony’s suicide. The conclusion of the final act requires much of John Mackay and this is the one time when his range lets him down. He looks and sounds rather like an English accountant rather than a Roman Caesar.
So for many this will be a problematic production. Brave and adventurous but with its self-created shortcomings outweighing its strengths by some considerable distance.