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  • Flora Gosling

Review: Antony and Cleopatra (Royal Shakespeare Theatre)

Updated: Jun 10, 2022

Please let it be good. Please let it be good. Please let it be good. Despite my usual determination not to prejudge any production, nor let any review harm my expectation (I know, the hypocrisy is astounding), I entered my local cinema with a smidge of trepidation about what the next production in Angus Jackson’s Rome Season at the RSC had in store. Though he is season director, this production was directed by Iqbal Khan, and I was curious to see how this would compare to Jackson’s “Julius Caesar”, which I found rather bland. Part of what caused this was the rather empty and uninteresting stage image, and as all shows in this season feature a traditional design I wasn’t exactly holding my breathe to see designer Robert Innes Hopkins’ work. But I must have a clear head, I thought. Perhaps the design will be stunning.

And, well, it is. Maybe it’s the Egyptian setting. Maybe it’s Hopkins’ full and rich imagination. Maybe it’s Maybelline. Either way every moment is just a joy to look at: the deep reds, gold and blacks of Egypt contrasting with the cold stone-like quality of Rome. It sets a tone for each location, and helps to show Antony’s temptation and lust to return to bae, and the frustration of his fellow triumvirs Octavius and Lepidus at his lack of loyalty to his country and responsibilities. I reckon that this production is almost worth seeing simply for the sumptuous imagery. Cleopatra’s appearance in one scene chatting lazily of her love for Antony (pictured) was especially indulgent.

Josette Simon’s performance in the legendary role is something to behold. She certainly hasn’t taken this role lightly, and every movement and twinge of emotion in her voice is amped up to the nth degree. At first, I found her exuberance a little overwhelming, surprised at her apparent overacting. As the play wore on however, and again I must confess my ignorance at this point that I am not tremendously well-acquainted with this play, I found that her performance is perfect for the role. Cleopatra is an emotional, seductive, stubborn drama queen and Simon shows this off at every possible moment. Her effortless fluidity keeps your eyes glued to her. Sadly the same cannot be said of David Burnette as political rebel Pompey. He tried to have the same exuberance as Simon, but in this case it was just overacting. Rather than being unable to look away out of awe, he demanded attention like an obtuse child in a slightly desperate performance. What surprised me is that Khan, and presumably Burnette himself, know this, as the humorously calm reactions to his rants make clear. However, simply being aware that a performance is rather over done does not justify it.

Burnette aside, the supporting cast of this production were brilliant. Well-cast, well-balanced performances that didn’t steal the show but added to it none the less. Personal favourites included Amber James as one of Cleopatra’s maid Charmian and Andrew Woodall as one of Antony’s follower Enobarbus, who’s sarcastic J.K.Simons-esque performance stood out far more than his good but uninspiring performance in Julius Caesar. It makes a big difference when there is not one performance to admire but a pick-n-mix host of wonderful performances who make their characters matter.

A surprising addition to this production was the score. In most productions, the score is something that helps to build up or break tension, but otherwise goes unnoticed. Here it shines as strongly as any one of the actors on stage. Composer Laura Mvula may be known for her work as a soul singer-songwriter, but my god can she write for theatre. From the first moment, when masked Romans performs strange snake-like dance to the deep and dangerous score, Mvula sweeps you up and doesn’t let go. It doesn’t just give you a clue about how the audience should feel, it makes those feelings inescapable.

It is important to note; this is not a ground-breaking production. You will not walk out of the theatre feeling you’re life has been totally enriched by what you have seen, nor will you wonder at the mastery for hours afterwards. What it will do is make you smile. I think this is one of the most purely enjoyable Shakespeare productions I have seen, and in a time when theatre is oft viewed as an art to sit and admire, there is an essential place for a Shakespearean production such as this that really fills you up inside. It’s satisfying to look at, the performances are, for the most part, fantastic, and the score sets the whole thing off. Anyone can enjoy this production, and that’s important. Four stars.

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