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.
(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.