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REVIEW: Antony & Cleopatra, RSC





Josette Simonas Cleopatra and James Corrigan; and with Antony Byrne as Antony, inset
Josette Simonas Cleopatra and James Corrigan; and with Antony Byrne as Antony, inset

What a Cleopatra coming at you!

Production reviewed 23rd March

While the nation gets embroiled in a debate about who’s got the best legs — May or Sturgeon — theatre-goers and critics who have seen this production of Antony and Cleopatra are having their own opposing views on which lead actor held up this slightly off-key show.

Director Iqbal Khan’s production starts thunderously well. Pop star Laura Mvula’s groovesome tunes provide a suitably fruity score as Antony and Cleopatra get frisky under the sheets as the queen’s louche attendants — including a marvellously ribald Charmian (Amber James) and eunuch Mardian (Joseph Adelakun), who’s come to the party apparently dressed as Tutankhamun— look on titteringly. Designer Robert Innes Hopkins has jooshed up starkness of the still in situ Julius Caesar set by festooning it with velvet drapes and throwing in the odd kitschy artefact — and who doesn’t love an Egyptian cat god statuette? It’s all so much fun, and suggests that Ant and Cleo’s liaisons are going to be most dangereuses indeed.

And let’s be honest the non-love story bits of Antony and Cleopatra are not so thrilling — all the what the flip is going on political stuff — so you need that core relationship to be properly riveting. A burning Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor feverish-type affair would do the trick (although obviously 1963’s blockbuster Cleopatra was a tad overblown the lovers brought home the bacon, as it were).

Alas Antony Byrne as Mark Antony and Josette Simon as Cleopatra do not have the prerequisite chemistry to set the stage ablaze.

Many critics have praised Byrne and blamed Simon for the lack of oomph in their onstage relationship, but I beg to differ. Byrne is a solid actor, he’s convincing and delivers his lines well — as indeed he did as Kent in the recent King Lear. But he seems ever the soldier, head down, stomping around, rather than a lover whose liaisons you want to be a witness of.

Simon, on the other paw, is sublime — born to be Cleopatra and hotter than a horde of cats on a particularly hot tin roof. She fidgets, frets and threatens; a brilliantly neurotic queen whose self-doubt combined with her inclination to despotism leads to a fantastically schizophrenic performance: from playful kitten to lacerating lion, delivered in a variety of voices — from Eartha Kitt to a semi-Brian Blessed.

When she attacks the messenger who tells her that Antony has married Octavia in Act II, she is such a totally intimidating menacing loon I cowered and cringed in my seat. By her death scene, with her fury chilled, she is nakedly demure and utterly stunning.

There are other great supporting actors here — Ben Allen as a dangerously scheming Octavius Caesar, and James Corrigan as Agrippa has a naturalism and allure that would have made him perhaps a better choice as the sexed up Mark Antony. But why Andrew Woodall, as Antony’s trusted wingman Enobarbus, felt a mockney-cockney accent would be the thing for his character is puzzling. I heard one wag in the interval declaring it “too Arthur Mullard to understand”; and he did fluff a few lines, including, rather unforgivably, the fantastically poetical description of Cleopatra in Act II.

At the end of the day Josette Simon is so tantalizingly watchable as Cleopatra she gives this production all the legs it needs.

Antony & Cleopatra is on at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 7th September. Book tickets at www.rsc.org.uk



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