Sunday, 23 September 2012

Antony and Cleopatra: A Review

Kim Cattrall as Cleopatra
(image source: Everyman Theatre)

by James Burkinshaw

Janet Suzman's performance as Shakespeare's Cleopatra nearly 40 years ago remains definitive, in the view of most critics. Thus, when it was announced that she would be directing Kim Cattrall in the role, in a new production of Antony and Cleopatra (currently at Chichester's Festival Theatre), there was much excitement. Cattrall’s career-defining character, Samantha, in Sex and the City, shares many characteristics with Cleopatra --- both are strong, intelligent, sensual women, conscious of age and armed with a protective, self-knowing irony; each is desirous of the attention of men while amusedly contemptuous of their inadequacies and hypocrisies.

Suzman handled the staging of this notoriously difficult play (with forty-two scene changes, taking place from Rome to the Parthian border and all points in between) fluently and economically. The soft glow of lanterns suggested Egyptian sensuality and luxury, while stark lighting on an unadorned brick wall conveyed the implacable power of Rome. Although the Romans were rather unoriginally dressed in Ruritanian costumes straight out of Duck Soup, the rebellious Pompey was cleverly presented as a charismatic but unstable militia leader complete with keffiyeh and ammunition belt strapped across his chest. The opening of the play was memorable, with Cleopatra rising up on a pedestal, like a combination of Greek goddess and pop diva, in a mask of gold. In contrast, her nemesis, Octavius, was the only character dressed in a dark, sober business suit, emphasising his isolated self possession.

Martin Hutson as Octavius Caesar
(image: Chichester Festival Theatre)
Martin Hutson was superb as Octavius, Julius Caesar’s adopted son and Antony’s rival for power, brilliantly capturing his puritanical austerity, social awkwardness and politician’s cunning (like a Roman Richard Nixon), while also suggesting a touching vulnerability in his protective tenderness towards his sister Octavia. The first half of the play ended with Octavius and Octavia clinging to each other for comfort (following her betrayal by Antony), looking for all the world like two abandoned children. For me, it was the most powerful moment in the play.

Which it really shouldn’t be. The disqualifying weakness of this production (as many critics have observed) was the lack of chemistry between the two actors (Michael Pennington and Kim Cattrall) portraying Antony and Cleopatra. Cattrall herself was effective in the scenes when Cleopatra is unburdening herself to her handmaidens, Charmian and Iras, in the privacy of her chamber; there was a subtlety, intimacy, humour and authenticity to these moments that was convincing and moving. There was also a nice touch when, signing official documents, Cleopatra hesitantly and self-consciously put on a pair of reading glasses, suggesting the diminution of powers that accompanies encroaching age.

Michael Pennington as Antony
(image: Chichester Festival Theatre)
What makes Cleopatra such a complex role is that she is, during much of the play, putting on a performance --- to her courtiers, to Roman ambassadors, to Octavius, to Antony, even to herself --- supremely (and often ironically) conscious of her effect on others, of the potency of her image. This requires nuance and modulation; Cattrall spoke the lines eloquently, but her voice was often strained, lacking subtlety or timbre. Michael Pennington, in contrast, boomed thunderously (even Brian Blessedly, at times), from his first appearance on stage dancing like a drunken bear. Pennington is a wonderfully intelligent actor, but seemed badly miscast here; his Antony was rarely anything other than a vainglorious buffoon. One could neither imagine that he and Cleopatra were lovers nor that he had once been a brilliant, charismatic military leader adored by his men and feared by his enemies. Another weakness here was Ian Hogg's Enobarbus; the idea of playing him as a “speak-as-I-find”, wilfully unimpressed northerner was a good one, in theory, but it was ultimately limiting. This Enobarbus was neither able to convey his reluctant seduction by the “strange invisible perfume” of Cleopatra’s Egypt nor his tortured guilt at his own betrayal of Antony. 

Overall, I am still glad I saw the production; it was often inventive and always watchable. However, it was ultimately a disappointment, haunted throughout by a sense of what might have been.

Watch director Janet Suzman discussing her production of 'Antony and Cleopatra' here.

1 comment:

  1. A pretty fair summary of this very poor effort I think. I only differ in that I found it painfully unwatchable most of the time.

    The leads were mediocre though Catrall must have refined her performance from when I saw it pre-press night if the later reviews are to be believed.

    The lack of chemistry between A & C was palpable, but to be honest the apparent age gap 38 plays 69 - almost reflecting that of Depardieu and Heigel in My Dad the Hero - might have made any attempt at a believable relationship rather improbable even alienating.

    Sadly what sank this for me - aside from the leads and the sheer inaudibility of several supporting actors - was the feeling that ten zillion ideas (probably quite interesting individually) had been flung into the pot and stirred up ending with nowt more than a mess of pottage.

    Charles Cooper


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