“a …piece of work; which … to have been blest withal would have discredited your travel.”

Who: Royal Shakespeare Company

What: Antony and Cleopatra

Where: Royal Shakespeare Theatre

When: 23rd March 2017

This is the first of four reviews that I will deliver over the coming months on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) Rome season. We begin with Antony and Cleopatra and then head through Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus. The comfort of this is that it gives the RSC three attempts to improve upon this woeful Antony and Cleopatra.

It is fair to say that this production has opened to mixed reviews. One writer, Peter Rhodes for the Express and Star is indicative of the first camp. He describes this Antony and Cleopatra as the best version he has seen anywhere on stage or on screen. The second group of reviewers have not been so kind. For example, Mark Shenton writing for The Stage describes it as lumbering and old fashioned. I wouldn’t want to agree with all Mr Shenton’s views (I son’t think it’s old fashioned, for example) but I fall very much into this second camp and even more negatively so than most reviewers.

This is perhaps the worst RSC production I have seen since the 2012, Troilus and Cressida which still lives in infamy in my heart. It is not nearly that bad but its weaknesses are too obvious to ignore.

Let’s start with Josette Simon as Cleopatra. Now the RSC has history with peculiar Cleopatras. Kathryn Hunter in 2010’s Antony and Cleopatra, which was directed by Michael Boyd, was about as far from a traditional conception of Cleopatra as you will find and the production lives in memory as the one where Cleopatra quit in the middle of the run. Now, Ms Simon is a much more conventional model of the great Egyptian queen but then she opens her mouth.

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Let me deviate for a few moments to give you a sense of what I mean. I’ll take you back to the days of the old Batman television series of the 1960s and the character of Catwoman. Now, in that programme and spin off film, Catwoman had been successfully played by Julie Newmar and Lee Meriwether respectively and all was well. But then in the third season, those two ladies were unavailable and Eartha Kitt was hired to play the feline villain and she had some distinctly odd vocal mannerisms – somewhere between Ms Kitt’s usual singing style and a cat’s miaow (at least in her conception, I think).

KittCat

Unintentionally, I presume, Josette Simon’s voice in this play sounds exactly the same to me. Initially i found it off putting. The longer it went on, it began to grate and grate and detracted from much everything else that was happening in the scenes she was involved in. It didn’t help that there was a large black cat on stage for many of Cleopatra’s scenes. I kept waiting for Adam West to arrive and rescue us.

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Perhaps in an attempt to get the audience to have their attention on something other than her voice, in the final scene she removes her wig (I hadn’t guessed that her head was shaved) and finally all her clothes. Now, nudity in the theatre is fine when the play demands it but I didn’t see any necessity for this and it didn’t add anything.

But what of Antony? Well, I have seen Antony Byrne in several Shakespeares over the years. Recently, he was Pistol in the “Henry” plays where he adopted a guise which was not dissimilar to a certain character from the Black Adder TV series. This time, of course, he is playing it straight and he seems over-matched by his role. It does seem that “Antony” and “Cleopatra” are pulling in different directions for a lot of the production and that doesn’t help.

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Speaking of peculiar voices, Andrew Woodall as Enobarbus adopts a London accent which falls somewhere between Arfur Daley and Del Boy (I don’t watch that much television but I don’t know where else to go for my references in these instances).

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Will Bliss who plays the Soothsayer who sits alone on the empty stage before the production-proper begins looks like Jesus ready for Easter a couple of weeks early.

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Speaking of the time before the performance begins, the audience were treated to one of the horn players seemingly warming up his instrument before the acting commenced but after the audience had arrived. If this was deliberate, I am really not sure what purpose it served.

The stage design by Robert Innes Hopkins seemed to consist mainly of a middle section which rose and fell, going from visibility and into sight alternately but a lot of the time seemed to serve no purpose than to show that the RSC had the budget to do this. In his opening scene, Ben Allen as Octavius Caesar stood between two pillars at the rear of the design as the Romans enjoyed a steam bath or sauna. As he reached out his hands between the two pillars, he reminded me of Victor Mature’s Samson perhaps about to bringing it all crashing down and save us the next two hours plus.

So are there some good things in this production, directed by Iqbal Khan? Yes. First and obviously, there is a good play dying to get out from under all this.

Then there are some good solid performances by the minor characters. Amber James as Charmian and even-more-so, Kristin Atherton as Iris deliver well as Cleopatra’s attendants. Lucy Phelps as Octavia is good in an all too brief appearance.

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James Corrigan, who was so strong as Palamon in the recent version of “The Two Noble Kinsmen”, is very good here in his brief appearance as Agrippa but he is wasted in such a tiny role when there were so many problems in the larger roles.

Patrick Drury was solid as Lepidus but it was confusing to bring him back into the story as the Schoolmaster so soon after his demise in his main role which it was possible to miss as he was killed in a flash of light at the very back of the stage.

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So a wasted night out for me? Yes.

A production that is rescuable with a few minor changes? No.

Something that will see the RSC performing to half full houses further down the road? Sadly, I think so.

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