Antony and Cleopatra, Play 2 of the RSC’s Rome Season, sees the return of Josette Simon to the stage at Stratford Upon Avon, after an absence of some seventeen years. It has been worth the wait. Her brave, bold and beautiful performance as Cleopatra is theatrical plutonium. There might be quibbles elsewhere, but in Simon, whom age has not wearied, Iqbal Khan’s production has a world class star, reinventing a role that everyone thinks they know.
I have immortal longings in me. Now no more the juice of Egypt’s grape shall moist this lip. Yare, yare, good Iras! Quick! Methinks I hear Antony call: I see him rouse himself to praise my noble act. I hear him mock the luck of Caesar, which the gods give men to excuse their after wrath. Husband, I come. Now to that name my courage prove my title! I am fire and air: my other elements I give to baser life.
Josette Simon’s Cleopatra is indeed fire and air. With endless style, passionate conviction, and brave, bravura intensity, Simon redefines a role that often eludes even truly great actors. There is no hint of Elizabeth Taylor here. Nor is there any sense that Cleopatra is a strumpet, or a nymphomaniac with delusions of grandeur, or aloof indifference.
Simon creates a wholly different Cleopatra; a truly regal woman, a Queen to some, a Goddess to some, a Consort to some, a Warrior to some; an idea and an ideal to many. What is most thrilling about this Cleopatra is that she is a stranger to an entrenched, white, parochial view of the world that she never seeks to fit in with. Her otherness is her defining, magnificent feature.
Simon’s Cleopatra simmers, sulks, struts, sighs and sniggers, without ever giving away her hand or her spirit. Her union with Anthony is on her terms. The machinations and politics of Rome concern her only as far as she considers necessary: she does not sell out, rather she spins her own wheel and takes what she wants. Octavius never beats her. She defeats him, even as she embraces immortality.
This is a Cleopatra unlike any other. She blisters with astonishing skill, the words achingly beautiful when Simon wants them to be, discarded like dirty confetti when she does not. Her presence absorbs the air; she makes every moment count, sometimes in wholly unexpected ways. Her commitment is absolute – the effect, mesmerising and miraculous. She breaks all the “rules”, defies traditional expectations. Her performance is pure theatrical bliss.
This is Iqbal Khan’s production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, the second play in the RSC’s Rome Season now playing at Stratford Upon Avon and destined for the Barbican later this year. Using partly the same set as featured in Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra is by far the superior production, even if the play itself might be a lesser work.
Robert Innes Hopkins embellishes the set in quite visually arresting ways. Luscious drapes descend to partition off the exotic world that is Cleopatra’s domain. A gilded throne ascends from under the stage. When Rome is at war, in peril of doom, the robust marble pillars, a symbol of power and privilege, are replaced with partly-destroyed ones, an effective scenic stroke which ensures the pulse changes from excitement to fear.
Pompey’s ship is represented by a huge sail, which dominates the stage. When the war is underway, there is an effective use of model ships and hand-to-hand-combat which fundamentally conveys the notion of advance, retreat, death and mortal confrontation – when one of the ships bursts into flames, it is a potent symbol of the carnage, the loss. The vivid bloodstained sky backdrop is also evocative. The plays sprawls across many locations and intense situations – all of them are well represented by Innes’ innovative design.
Even the well known sauna scene gets crisp attention. Alright, there is no such scene, traditionally, but setting a key early scene involving Octavius and Lepidus in a male sauna cleverly suggests male entitlement, privilege and exclusivity. In a similar way, the very, very feminine sense of Cleopatra’s inner sanctum is effortlessly conveyed, and the particular contribution of Joseph Adelakun’s Eunuch, Mardian, assists in that no end.
In short, the visual shorthand utilised by Khan and Innes works exceptionally well. It helps keep the narrative shifts both interesting and comprehensible. Costumes too work, especially Cleopatra’s, which are an endless variety of sensual, shimmering fabric. Her final transformation, involving an extraordinary purple and gold robe, cements Cleopatra’s transformation into the immortal, instantly recognisable, icon of Ancient Egypt.
Many of the inherent problems of the gnarled plot are solved by the staging. The moment when Pompey is reminded by Menas that his three key enemies are asleep on board his ship and their throats might easily be cut is incredibly potent because it takes place on Pompey’s ship in the midst of the idle bodies of his men. Menas’ notion is immediately seen as tangible, possible – the melee of the exhausted forces clearly established.
Equally, the scene where Antony’s fatally wounded body is dragged to Cleopatra’s upper level is often risible, but not here. It is difficult to watch, but you feel the intensity of the desperation Cleopatra feels, her hunger to embrace him, whatever the difficulty.
Allegiances change quickly in the second half of Antony and Cleopatra, but here it was easy to follow those changes and understand them. A key moment, when Antony’s jealousies enrage him, sees him whip Demetrius to whom Cleopatra has just sworn allegiance to Octavius. Watching them argue while Demetrius is whipped, upstage in the semi-shadows, brings home the capricious nature of power and the fever of fear.
But the true coup de théâtre comes at the very end, when Simon’s Cleopatra reveals herself to the audience to be a total construct, a lure for Romans. First, she removes her exuberant hair, to reveal her bald pate. Then, her gown. For that second, utterly calm, utterly naked, she is entirely the real Cleopatra: brave, indomitable, serene.
She has dressed so that men would dance to her tune, deliberately, slyly, knowingly. Now she dresses again, to ensure her place in history, courtesy of an asp. It’s breathtaking to watch. Simon, like a peeled fig, shows the true fruit that is Cleopatra. Was there ever such a remarkable woman? – you cannot help but ask yourself.
Antony Byrne makes a good fist of Mark Antony, showing his masculine, soldierly underbelly, as well as his political, military mind and his passionate lover overlay. All aspects of the character are in play, as should be. He manages the language with relative ease, especially in the difficult passages towards the end of the play. The sense of a dullard soldier is strong with him, and this works well given the intense power of Simon’s Cleopatra. Their sexual relationship is clear, and made intense by both of their performances.
As Enobarbus, Andrew Woodall adopts a singularly odd accent; he comes across as more pig farmer than loyal military attaché. The accent undercuts everything he does, and, in particular, the famous speech about Cleopatra, her burnished throne, and her dimpled cheek entourage on the barge. Still, he achieves a sense of solidarity and loyalty, which is nearly unique amongst the relationships here. When he defects, you understand Antony’s anguish.
David Burnett shines as the driven Pompey, a wild, frenetic energy about him which speaks volumes about his sense of paternal revenge. He masters the language well, giving it a subletly and sinuous quality which is welcome. Patrick Drury is excellent, both as the ramrod Lepidus and then as the Schoolmaster. He brings gravitas to each scene in which he appears, and he single-handedly grounds the sauna scene.
As Octavia, Lucy Phelps is quite delicious, making a very different kind of powerful, political woman from Cleopatra. Her mind is agile, her eyes deftly reflecting that. Amber James is marvellous as Charmian, Cleopatra’s handmaiden and confidante. She enriches every moment. Kristin Atherton is also excellent, as Iras, and Will Bliss and Anthony Ofoegbu make the most of their roles as Soothsayer and Diomedes.
There are excellent supporting performances from Jon Tarcy (the hapless Demetrius), James Corrigan (perfect as the insinuating Agrippa), and Luke McGregor as Proculeius. Sean Hart does what he is asked to do well, but it is slightly odd to see Eros as a casual sexual plaything of Antony.
However, disappointment rests with Ben Allen, whose Octavius Caesar is more Caligula than Augustus. At the end of the play, and, indeed, at the start, in the sauna scene, Allen is commanding, a sense of regal, authoritative, integrity intensely felt. He seems there the great, impressive leader he should be. But elsewhere, he yelps and screams and shouts like a recalcitrant schoolgirl – it seems a clear directorial decision but one that makes little sense. As the final scene clearly demonstrates, Allen has a splendid Octavius in him. If only it had been revealed.
But, in the end, it is Simon who makes the evening a transcendental experience. Her delivery of the “I dreamt there was an Emperor Antony” speech was mesmerising, magical. On its own, that scene was worth the whole evening.
This is a superb version of Antony and Cleopatra, one that should make a mark through the ages because of the extraordinary commitment and talent of Josette Simon.