Theatre Review: ‘Antony and Cleopatra/’Julius Caesar’, Royal Shakespeare Company

Antony and Cleopatra: B+

Julius Caesar: B

Of course the current political climate was ripe for a revival of Julius Caesar (JC henceforth). Political outsiders fuming at the establishment, attractive but tragically fallible figureheads burdened by the weight of expectations, charismatic demagogues playing fickle mobs like a fiddle….sound familiar?

It’s not altogether clear why the Royal Shakespeare Company has revived Antony and Cleopatra (AC henceforth) at the same time as JC. Unlike the ‘Henriad’ of Richard II, Henry IV parts I and II and Henry V, there is no argument that you are watching a psychological progression. The Antony of JC is completely distinct from the Antony of AC. And – correctly – played by different actors. Still, we were in the neighbourhood and we are doing a Tax Year of Shakespeare, so why not see them back-to-back?

AC, directed by Iqbal Khan, works better for me as a production. It draws continuous and emphatic contrasts between the fading splendour of the Egyptian civilisation and the sternly macho Romans. Josette Simon’s Cleopatra is exhausting, but compulsively watchable – kittenish one moment, pouting and shrieking the next, and at the last heartbreakingly regal. Anthony Byrne’s Antony has a tougher line to walk: plausibly torn between two worlds, racked by a sense of his own inadequacies, and incapable of taking responsibility for any of them. He swallows hook, line and sinker the locker-room misogyny of the ‘witchcraft’ that has robbed him of his vaunted prowess, and at every reverse spitefully rails at and slut-shames the woman he supposedly loves. He is even incapable of falling on his own sword and asks his bondman to do it for him, shamed finally when the bondman takes his own life rather than perform the act. Seen in that context, both ‘lovers’ go through a journey in which they realise that their spheres of influence are shrinking, and finally take the only control left to them – their own deaths. Certainly Antony’s death seems to powerfully affect Cleopatra largely insofar as she realises that she will now be under Octavius Caesar’s control. And indeed neither Antony nor Cleopatra speak the language of love, but – as Bernard Shaw remarked – the language of ownership. I shuddered every time someone described Cleopatra as a ‘morsel’, a ‘dish’, or ‘cold on dead Caesar’s trencher’, which happens very often. There is a coldly transactional way in which women are bartered and discussed that I’m pretty sure we’re meant to find repellent.

That said, Octavius Caesar (the very good Ben Allen) does seem to sincerely – and perhaps inappropriately – dote on his sister Octavia. Allen’s Caesar is the standout for me of this production. Intelligent, sensitive – even a touch neurasthenic – his Caesar seems to perennially quiver with the wounds dealt to his sense of aesthetics. Antony’s weakness and defections seem to physically offend him – and yet he brings a lump to my throat when he hears of Antony’s death and says ‘The breaking of so great a thing should make/ a greater crack’. Ah, the aching simplicity of that line.

Also very fine – at least up to Act Three – is Andrew Woodall’s Enobarbas, who delivers with aplomb that famously sumptuous description of Cleopatra’s barge, as well as the no less famous ‘Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/her infinite variety’. He seemed to be phoning it in rather in the latter acts. Perhaps conserving his energies for the evening?

Because Andrew Woodall is playing Caesar in JC, directed by Angus Jackson. JC doesn’t fall out of production schedules very long, and it wasn’t so long ago since Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female JC set in a women’s prison. So of course there’s been plenty of eye-rolling about Jackson’s decision to stage a straightforwardly classical version. Swishing togas abound, and Robert Innes Hopkins’s set is as aggressively monumental as you could wish for. The performances, too, stress clarity and an intelligent fidelity to the text, as opposed to ZOMG! fireworks.

Shame its Brutus can’t cope, though. I am assured by critics that Alex Waldmann is deserving of this big break, and the critics, I am sure, are honourable men. All I can say is that in this production he is misdirected or miscast. Brutus is a particularly tricky character to pull off. He has to walk a fine line between genuine good intentions and self-deluding narcissism, and seem capable of inspiring the love and respect of Caesar, the crowds and – at the very least – Cassius. And ….just…..no. Waldmann looks like a terrified little boy hoping that shouting and bluffing will do the trick. Which is a perfectly valid interpretation, I suppose, except that you don’t get the sense that it’s deliberate.

The tragedy you are left with, then, is not the waste of Brutus’s life, but that Cassius should have allowed his crush on Brutus to overmaster his manifestly superior judgement. Martin Hutson’s terrific Cassius is a wolfish, appropriately ‘lean and hungry’ intellectual. Pacing nervily in his toga, you feel that his thoughts and desires are consuming him from the inside.

Thankfully – as we will soon see – they’ve left him his six-pack.

Julius-Caesar-RSC-RST-40

(By the bye, there’s plenty of entirely gratuitous nudity on display here. Josette Simon strips down entirely at one point for……reasons……, and the above is a charmingly literal interpretation of Cassius having ‘bared [his] bosom to the thunder-stone’. Ben Allen’s Octavius, too, gets a look-in, swanning around in the Roman baths with a cloth scarfed perilously low on his hips. I’m not complaining. Pander to me, RSC. Pander to me.)

The contrast between Hutson’s furious intensity and Waldmann’s unanchored wandering is frankly painful. Brutus doesn’t seem remotely equal to the role that Cassius has nudged him into. He might bob along in the tide of Cassius’s fervid love. He might even – and always disastrously – overrule Cassius. But he never seems remotely capable of inspiring the love that Cassius lavishes on him. Even in the sequence where Brutus and Cassius fight in Brutus’s tent, Hutson’s desperation and pain seem to batter at Waldmann’s embarrassed confusion. And when Brutus kills himself and Antony gives him that famous eulogy, it’s never entirely clear what he has done to deserve it.

Oh yes, Antony. What a difference a play makes. The Antony of AC is a gruff, henpecked soldier. The rather younger Antony of JC is a shrewd, calculating statesman, wielding that fickle Roman mob like a surgeon his scalpel. If this is a psychological development, surely it is a regression.James Corrigan’s Antony is a watchful, coldly brutal man, investing his famous speech with pitch-black humour and cynicism. There’s a scene in which he snaps the neck of Brutus’s young serving-boy. it’s silent, it lasts less than five seconds and we all jumped and gasped.

All in all, I don’t know if I’d call either production definitive or essential. But they are both handsome, intelligent productions (particularly AC) and there’s much to enjoy.

Antony and Cleopatra runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 7 September 2017. Julius Caesar runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 9 September 2017.

23 thoughts on “Theatre Review: ‘Antony and Cleopatra/’Julius Caesar’, Royal Shakespeare Company

  1. I completely agree that Waldmann’s Brutus doesn’t seem to inspire the adoration the character receives (the last speech did seem a little jarring). I’m also interested to hear your appreciation of ‘the barge speech’. I’ve seen a critic denouncing Woodall’s recitation whilst I am in agreement with you that it was very well done.

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      1. I was fully on board with it. It was different, it was fun, and yet still moving and poetic where it needed to be. His nonchalance, I thought, was fantastic – almost reaching a peak when he becomes the “antique roman”. It felt as if he resigned to his betrayal and death, making it that much more bitter. I’m interested in what you said about Corrigan’s Antony – there was, indeed, a brutality to his Antony which is not often brought out quite so fiercely but I also think Corrigan’s Antony had so much more heart and humanity than others I’ve seen. He was bloody – in all senses of the word.

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  2. Oh absolutely – I think Corrigan brought a lovely wholeheartedness to Antony. I can see that Antony could be seen as little more than a sycophantic demagogue, but I like the sense that there is an element of revenge for a friend’s murder, as well as a power-grab, behind Antony’s actions.

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    1. Definitely – I feel like (although perhaps not feeling entirely cohesive when leading into ‘Antony and Cleopatra’) so much is gained by having him so intensely emotional. His almost roared speeches not only felt like battle cries but also like genuine heart-wrenching anger/grief. The political motivation and the emotional motivation were finely balanced. I was impressed with the balance of politics and emotion in both of the plays – and it was one of the aspects that impressed me the most of Ben Allen’s Octavius Caesar (which I cannot say enough good things about). Both a child and an autocrat coexisted in him, but not harmoniously, it seemed.

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  3. Yes, it’s a little tricky watching AC and JC back-to-back, when their conceptions of Antony are so very different. You mourn the lack of both the genuine emotion and the genuine fierce intelligence in Antony. Completely agree about Ben Allen’s Octavius. There’s that sense of controlled hysteria, an almost adolescent sensitivity, combined with intelligence and an autocratic temperament. Did you watch Hutson’s take on the role, in the Antony and Cleopatra with Kim Cattrall as Cleopatra? I didn’t, and I’m rather regretting that I didn’t after watching his Cassius. I’d have loved to do a compare-and-contrast with Allen.

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    1. Definitely. Having watched Antony and Cleopatra first, it’s almost surprising to meet Julius Caesar’s Antony! “Controlled hysteria” is very well put. And, no, I didn’t – but I’d have loved to. I can definitely imagine the approaches being very different. It’s also always interesting to see how modern dress vs. period-typical costumes affect the play. I do appreciate the classical approach (togas and all) and I’m quite glad the RSC styled their productions this way over the season. But modern dress always brings something different.

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      1. ‘controlled hysteria’ is not my own, I confess – it’s from the Guardian, I think. Yes, I also appreciated that the RSC went hardcore classical. Especially with Julius Caesar. It’s so obviously topical right now, it would be overkill to reference any particular time period. Keep the togas and let us nod along to the historical parallels for ourselves!

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  4. Very good, nonetheless. Agreed – the relevance speaks for itself. Often cripplingly. In my opinion, the RSC do Shakespeare like no other company. Rarely do I see productions I particularly dislike. I think a lot of their success comes down to their avoidance of ‘star-casting’ – I can’t help but feeling that the National, for example, cast a celeb rather than someone who is best for the role. The RSC, however, rely on predominantly theatre actors, and you get some incredible performances.

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    1. Ah, I wonder whether that’s it! They really are very democratic, down to the curtain calls – any other production would’ve sent its Brutus, Mark Antony and Cassius out for their own extra meed of applause. I’ve seen some tremendous productions at the National, but I agree that the ones that stick with me tend to be star vehicles. And I was rather underwhelmed by their recent Twelfth Night, a play for whom I have a long-standing and intense love.

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      1. Yes, there is a very assuring sense of their productions being a genuine ensemble, which – as you say – is a rarity. I think that’s so charming, as well as healthy. And I thought the National’s King Lear was excellent – but a lot of their Shakespeare fails to inspire me. I COMPLETELY agree with you on Twelfth Night, and I’m glad to hear that someone else shares my opinion. I adore the play: but felt that many elements of the National production were just wrong. Tamsin Grieg was fabulous – but that was about it for me. I was frankly offended by Feste; I thought the character was butchered.

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      2. YES! I couldn’t fathom what was meant to be the throughline of the Feste character. Never mind the gender-bending: dude, it’s the twenty-first century, give great roles to great actors irrespective of their gender. But what were they going for with Feste? In general, I might be too indoctrinated with ‘Directors’ Shakespeare: I couldn’t see what Godwin was going for with his Night. I couldn’t figure out what the aesthetic was meant to be, at all. And there’s so much music and melancholy in the play, which he completely sacrificed for the Toby Belch bits – which I found blah and overlong, frankly. Phoebe Fox’s Olivia was decent, but I’ve seen better. And Grieg was fabulous, no question, but it’s a Malvolio I’ve seen before. And I was Not Impressed by Viola. Such a shame, because I’ve liked Tamara Lawrence in other stuff. And the verse-speaking was all over the place as well. That’s another, very simple, relief at the RSC: the sense that you’re in a safe pair of hands when it comes to the verse.

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  5. I’ve always found that Feste is a completely different fool to many of Shakespeare’s others – Feste is SO intelligent, so perceptive. In a way, I feel almost as if the character stands alone throughout the play – almost separate to the mayhem surrounding him/her. And having Feste as the comic relief and little else was infuriating. Also, I don’t want to sound like too much of a Shakespeare-purist but having one of Shakespeare’s greatest monologues (about suicide) made into a cheap song? Not for me. Sir Andrew, also, had too much backbone. And, indeed, I’ve at least never heard messy delivery at the RSC, even when a production isn’t incredible, the verse is sound. And that is very important.

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    1. Yes, I know theatrical attention has tended to shift to Malvolio and Olivia recently, but I’ve frequently thought that Twelfth Nights stand and fall by their Feste. And this Night was completely committed to its slapstick comedy. It produced some unexpectedly funny bits: for example, Orsino was rather funny in this production (I’ll have to watch out for Oliver Chris) and he never really makes an impression on me normally. But by and large it was just…incoherent. There wasn’t anything I could hang my hat on. And also, honestly Twelfth Night doesn’t make sense if you manically focus on the comedy. Even this production snapped much more clearly into focus after Malvolio’s dragged off into the darkroom. There’s the nastiness and the cruelty of Belch, Feste and Maria laid bare. But without the darkness, without the almost uncomfortable homoerotic frisson, without the sadness, it’s all rather toothless.

      Oh, the drag queen thing? Yeah, it was one of those things that I was fine with conceptually, but it wasn’t rooted in anything. It was like they thought of the setpiece and bunged it in. And yes, why that particular soliloquy, anyway? Why not have a reprise of one Night’s many songs? So random and odd.

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      1. I agree. Shakespearean comedies always need a focus separate from their ‘madness’ – and I agree with you that the focus here was unclear. And, yes, I had no problems with it in theory but you’re right in saying it would have made much more sense to reprise a song from the play! The modern equivalent would have been a drag queen singing about the contemplation of suicide… really? It just felt patronising, in a way: using a famous speech just so people would go “oh yes, I know this speech!”

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      2. Seriously. And if they wanted a famous Shakespearian something-or-other, just go with a full-throated rendition of a sonnet. But mostly it was symbolic of the incoherence of the production. It just felt tacked -on instead of integrated. If you wanted a sultry torch song by a drag queen, then have Feste sing a duet with the drag queen for ‘O Mistress Mine’ or ‘Come Away Death’. The latter wouldn’t even need all that much rearranging. You could have Orsino and Cesario listen in on it and then have their ‘patience on a monument’ conversation. Easy peasy. Oh, and they butchered that sequence – a favourite of mine from the play – as well.

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  6. Completely agree. I’ve seen some excellent Twelfth Night productions in my time, too, and this one fell short. Propeller’s Twelfth Night was lovely. Also, the film adaptation with Imogen Stubbs is very good – not too adventurous but faithful and clear. Richard E Grant is the definitive Sir Andrew for me.

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    1. I confess I am so-so on the film. I liked Bonham carter’s Olivia very much, and Imelda staunton’s Maria. And I liked Richard e grant’s aguecheek as well. But the closest I have ever come to going ‘a-ha!’ Is a production by Bedlam in new York. They had five or so actors playing all the roles, and they signalled when the switch was coming by a sort of ‘tag! You’re it!’ transfer of colour. It sounds absurd, but it captured the fluidity of identity and the sheer anarchic quality of the play better than I have ever seen it. Its only real flaw was that they did away with the play’s songs (they’d gone for a 1930s summertime thing and they used ragtime and jazz, if I remember well).

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      1. Perfectly fair enough. And that certainly does sound interesting, would like to have seen it! I always appreciate it when a Twelfth Night actually seems to remember it’s own setting i.e. just after Christmas. Not many I’ve seen really play on the time to the best use. I’m hoping that the upcoming RSC production, in the winter season, might focus on this.

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