Together with a new production of Julius Caesar, the RSC has started a run of Antony and Cleopatra. Much of the same cast is present in both plays (and will also be in Titus Andronicus, later this year), and the title roles are played by Anthony Byrne and Josette Simon. Using many of the same set elements and wardrobe, these two plays are of a piece, both in design and direction. Here, Iqbal Khan, who brought us 2015’s visceral Othello, takes the helm.
As much as I loved Julius Caesar, I was bored by Antony and Cleopatra. The first part of the production seemed aimless, with no solid direction in the plot. It was very hard to follow, in part because of Josette Simon’s strange delivery, but also because the various actors seemed to be trying to do very different things. Simon seemed to be acting like someone in a silent movie, but with words. Her speech was stilted, her gestures overdone, and it wasn’t clear whether this was meant to portray Cleopatra as somehow crazy, or whether it was just a mannered way of performing.
Anthony Byrne, however, was the star of the show. I’ve seen him for several years in the history plays, and recently as a wonderful Kent in last year’s King Lear, and it’s great to see this actor in a starring role. Byrne, while not young, is an actor with quite a future. He can be powerful and sensitive, with excellent movement, and he commands attention. His only problem is that his booming voice sometimes dominates the other actors, who project much less.
(Photos: Helen Maybanks for the RSC.)
The second part of this long production – three hours, plus a twenty minute intermission – is a bit more focused, but the struggles between Antony and Octavius Caesar seem trivial. Things are confusing, and Octavius Caesar, played by Ben Allen, is unconvincing, and doesn’t seem like a leader, but more like an angry child.
Andrew Woodall’s Enobarbus is one of the highlights of the show. I felt his Julius Caesar was a bit over the top, but here he is more restrained. His cockney accent may not have been necessary, but he projects more power in this play than he did in Julius Caesar.
The sets and lighting were magnificent, far more interesting than in Julius Caesar, but the beginning of the production was marred by a VERY LOUD, uninteresting dance piece. I don’t know why, but RSC productions use this technique often, and this type of dance number generally adds nothing to the production. The music doesn’t need to be that loud; the theater is quite small.
The ending, where Cleopatra has herself bitten by an asp, falls flat. Josette Simon’s over-the-top acting and the way she manipulates the small rubber snake just aren’t believable. This seems to be a trend at some RSC productions recently. Even some excellent productions – such as the 2015 Othello, or last year’s King Lear – drop the ball in the climactic scene.
In the end, this is a beautiful production, but it is muddled by trying to do too much, and by Josette Simon’s odd acting. I’ll see it again, to see if I was wrong, or to see if the production tightens up, but this is one of the more disappointing Shakespeare plays I’ve seen at the RSC. I don’t expect every one of their Shakespeare productions to be excellent, and this one made me feel the way I did seeing last year’s Cymbeline.