The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Iqbal Khan, a well-respected director who produced Othello in 2015 and Much Ado About Nothing in 2012, has now dramatically reinvented Shakespeare’s 1607 historic tragedy Antony and Cleopatra. He takes the audience on a trip to the austere and powerful Rome and to Egypt, a realm of lavish exotica. At the centre of this performance, Anthony Byrne and Josette Simon infuse their characters Mark Antony and Queen Cleopatra with the scandal of their famous affair. Through their expressive and emotional portrayals and their interaction with the staging they are the most enthralling element.
Throughout the performance, both Simon and Byrne give their characters the strong personalities they are renowned for. Simon truly embodies Cleopatra as the ‘Serpent of the Nile’; she is ostentatious, extravagant, and authoritative, possessing a feminine energy. Unlike the conventional image of a woman of high rank in a patriarchal environment, Cleopatra is inappropriate in all senses. She acts playfully with Mark Antony at the start of the performance when she humiliates him by riding him around her chamber and making him wear a clownish mask. Later in the play, she attacks a messenger from Rome in a childish fit of jealous rage. Meanwhile, the audience gradually learn of Antony’s stubborn nature and neglected duties, which help form his climatic downfall.
The use of the settings of Rome and Egypt helped in unveiling a different side to both Antony and Cleopatra. On stage, Egypt was shown to be an opulent, leisurely, and lazy realm of luxuries through its exquisite canopies of hanging silk and the rich costume of the palace-goers. This aesthetic may be attributed to Cleopatra, who we may expect to be a nonsensical woman, separate from the realities of the real world. However, such an environment seems more potent of Anthony’s character, showing his indulgent, corruptible side and unprofessional leadership. Rome, on the other hand, is depicted as omniscient and mighty. Unlike the mysterious Eastern music played in the setting of Egypt, Rome is introduced with an anthem of triumph. Austere columns furnish the stage, forming bars in the penetrating blue light that gives the realm its coldness. The strength, pragmatism, and brutality of this setting is more apparent in the character of Cleopatra – a woman of force, energy and resilience. This is an effective staging technique that seemingly unites the lovers as characters of two dimensions.
Besides strong personality development, both Antony and Cleopatra effectively bring to life the play’s narrative. Byrne shows Anthony to be a man torn between his personal leisure and his desires of satisfying the Queen of Egypt. All this whilst trying to maintain cohesion with his kingdom, which is slowly slipping under the force of arch rival Pompey (David Burnett) who threatens to raise an army against the Triumvirate. Also, Antony shows significant strain and frustration regarding the actions of his fellow triumvirs: Octavius Ceaser and Lepidus who critique his lack of duty, and then wage war against Pompey in his absence. Throughout the performance, the audience feels Anthony’s pressures from all angles and by the end of the play, the mighty image built around his character is effectively shattered into something more human.
This was cleverly contrasted with Cleopatra’s story. Josette Simon conveyed the Queen’s boredom, jealousy and annoyance effectively through sudden bursts of anger as she is confined to her palace walls. Her comical energy and richly expressive performance made Cleopatra my favourite character of this production. The presentation of the two sides to her character were effectively contrasted through the use of costume and choreography. She was presented androgynously, dressed in a shapeless white gown, and wore her hair in a bold bun on top of her head, giving her a powerful and dangerous silhouette. She was comparable to an ornament, like a vase, as her movements were both sharp but elegant and her very presence on stage, particularly as she rose through the floor on her lounger, both beautiful and impacting. Amber James and Kristin Atherton, playing Charmian and Iras, furnished their Queen, the three of them often presented in a triangular hierarchy with Cleopatra at the fore.
This presentation of her alters later in the play. Before her suicide she wears a pale pink, demure feminine gown that strips her of the otherworldy nature that the white dress gave her. Likewise, her hair becomes a shaved head, making her seem both smaller and weaker. Charmian and Iras stand in the distance. Symbolically, we witness her decline as she takes her life over her love for Anthony, in the most tragic part of one of Shakespeare’s best-loved tragedies.
Transportive, intensely expressive and with a Cleopatra of ‘infinite variety,’ this RSC production boasts a rich performance worth seeing.