This year is the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, and at The Globe a suitably historical theme has been adopted: Shakespeare’s plays of Rome. The theatre proclaims its 2014 season to be a display of ‘mankind’s endless capacity for conflict’, and the stories of the people caught within. Antony and Cleopatra, spanning as it does the Roman Empire, the high seas, and dusty Egypt, centres on the two lovers who are at the heart of political turmoil.
The play has so far earned the reputation of the ill production – there’s been absences, accidents and sickness. Fortunately only a somewhat minor character was missing from this particular performance, and his replacement was more than up to the task (though could have done with a bit more prep, as the scroll he found reason to hold in most scenes displayed). Cleopatra herself had an ankle support on, though the strategic bandaging wasn’t a wardrobe eyesore.
The space available is ingeniously used. In particular there is plenty of audience close-ups, and frequent use of the yard. The wedding proceeds down a set of stairs through the middle of the ‘groundlings’, while audience members seated in the upper levels throw gold confetti. Appearing at the backs of those standing, the troops later march up the one ramp to the left, and Antony is to be dragged up another to the right as he lies dying. Furthermore, the creativity of performing the battle at sea is graceful and simple. Two soldiers with their respective flags circle each other whilst suspended by only their hands, wrapped tightly around wires from the roof.
Of Cleopatra and Antony themselves, the two leads are phenomenal, their chemistry genuinely contagious. Eve Best suits the role of the revered Queen down to the ground. She is both effortlessly sexy and flirtatious – one lucky member of the audience gets a kiss – as well as foot-stompingly headstrong and stubborn.
Clive Wood’s Antony is charismatic, and well-cast. Aged, battle hardened, and broad, he’s a clever contrast to the youth and pomp of Jolyon Coy’s Octavius Caesar. Antony is the character you don’t expect to love, but by the time of his rash suicide you will have completely fallen for his honest charm and blunt ways.
It’s a simplistic set: burning incense, rugs overhead, and cushions leaning against the pillars situate the opening straight in the heart of Egypt. Rome, in comparison, is bare. As the play progresses, more props are used in a similar way. A map strung from the stage balcony filled with holes is for the raging war. A beer barrel centre-stage is the pinnacle of a raucous party. Cleopatra’s final scene is her sat upon a magnificently sized golden-winged throne.
Amidst all the success though, there was a malfunctioning effect. An out-of-control smoke machine proved problematic for the first five minutes, as a thick cloud – sourced from underneath the stage itself and rising through the wood – completely obscured the front row’s view. Thus, Clive Wood in a dress wasn’t visible. Of all the things to miss, for pure comedy value this is probably one of the moments to be most disappointed about.
A hot day, with the sun itself making an appearance, it was the best time for a journey to Egypt and Rome. With highlights including a drunken dance, battle choreography and bloody deaths, Jonathan Munby has a right to be proud of his directing. Antony and Cleopatra is funny, tragic, and a strange mix of the brutal and beautiful.
While often considered deficient in the psychological complexity and emotional intensity of his darkest tragedies, Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra proves every bit as heart-wrenching in The Globe’s current summer performance. What it may lack in dramatic subtlety, it more than makes up for with its enthralling heroine, macabre imagery and word-play.
The somewhat overplayed moments of bawdy humour by no means detract from the play’s tragic intensity (nor did the occasional low-flying plane) but in fact only serve to highlight the characters’ misdirected energies. For all their primal lusts and carnal desires, their actions strive towards futile goals attempting to surpass mortal constraints altogether. Epic aims are continually thwarted by human lust and limitations and Clive Wood embodies this tension superbly as the cowardly but ambitious Antony torn to his very core.
Eve Best, too, is true to her name as the regal Cleopatra. Her performance was practically flawless and the energy emanating from her majestic gestures and bold voice never faltered as she indeed ‘makes hungry/Where most she satisfies’. However, while The Globe’s programme terms the play one in which ‘two lovers are blown apart by love and war’, the production almost seems to lay equal emphasis on each of the characters in their own right.
No single figure lacks tragic potential and all the actors shine as star-crossed individuals afflicted by the demands of conflicting personal and political loyalties. Sirine Saba, in particular, stands out as Cleopatra’s handmaid, projecting a rather Amazonian vivacity befitting Best’s potent dynamism.
Concluding with a tribal dance that ends the play on a resounding triumph, we are left wondering who – really – stands defeated and who victorious. Each of the characters undergo immense suffering from the outset and even Caesar – left free to rule alone at the end – stands pensively in front of the dead bodies, considering the ‘great solemnity’ of the rulers’ destinies.
It is not a surprise that Antony couldn’t go so far as to kill himself outright: for the audience it is equally hard to leave after Best’s beguiling performance as Cleopatra who truly emerges as not only an ‘enchanting queen’ but a courageous human whose death comes close to securing her ‘[i]mmortal longings’.