Antony and Cleopatra
Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in rep until 28 August
In this deplorable new production, it is not just the great general Antony who’s taken leave of his senses but Michael Boyd, its director and generalissimo of the RSC, too. In prospect, the casting of the diminutive character actor Kathryn Hunter as the serpent and seductress of Old Nile always seemed weird, if not actually crazy. In practice, it is an unmitigated disaster. It is doubtless some kind of record that Hunter is playing both the Fool in Lear and Cleopatra in the same season. But this is a foolishness too far, and it does not stop there.
Hunter is an accomplished director and an actor of prodigious, protean skills. Her wiry physique and rubbery face have permitted astonishing assumptions (Richard III, Lear, Kafka’s Monkey), but Cleopatra was never going to be one of them. In daring to essay this summit among Shakespearean female roles, which indeed can be played in a great many ways, Hunter proves there’s actually a limit to its ‘infinite variety’. Lacking any semblance of a possible physique du rôle, she stumbles around the stage on the absurdly high heels without which she might just about come up to Antony’s waist. The couturiers have done their best for her with a succession of sensational gowns, echoed outrageously in the outfits for her entourage. But also their worst in doing nothing to conceal the bony shoulders and sinewy arms whose jerky movements are an essence of Hunter’s acting. The staring eyes, dropping jaw and furrowed brows do not help, while her coarsely unmusical voice and rapid-fire delivery do not begin to do justice to the obvious intelligence that lies behind her understanding of the wondrous poetry.
What kind of an Antony could have fallen for her? Darrell D’Silva is a commendably rough-grained Kent in the RSC’s concurrent Lear, but as Antony is plainly at a loss, as anyone would be, in being paired with such a mistress. Passion, seduction, fatal infatuation are all unimaginable between them. This third pillar of the world is a bluff barrack-room sergeant, discovering energy and amplitude only as he’s about to tumble. Lacking all humour and largeness of spirit, his embarrassment in the role is only surpassed by what he seems to feel about his lines.
Not for the first time at Stratford, this problem with the verse is a product of an anxiety lest the play come across as less than modern and relevant. It’s not just Antony who’s demoted to the ranks but, inevitably, his shrewd aide-de-camp Enobarbus, now a stubble-faced corporal, with earring and trendy necklace. This, you’ll recall, is the man to whom Shakespeare entrusts the peerless description of Cleopatra in her gilded barge. In this instance, it was perhaps just as well that the speech remained mired in the mud.
You will have guessed that the soldiery are kitted out as though just back from Afghanistan — desert boots, camouflage fatigues, walkie-talkies, body armour, the lot. What to do about a sea battle? Why, have Cleopatra and the Egyptians parade with paper boats held above their heads. The Roman killjoys are in grey suits, the usually excellent John Mackay plainly ill at ease as Caesar (no authority or stature here either). Assuming the improbable role of commander-in-chief, he spurns uniform in favour of adding an unaccustomed tie to his civvy shirt.
You couldn’t help but feel sorry for the actors who have to fulfil Michael Boyd’s farrago of spurious modernity, its unhappy blend of ‘realism’ and theatrical make-believe. If this was genuine radical theatre at its experimental best, I’d be happy to applaud. What madness can have overtaken the brilliant director of the Histories sequence? This show is worthy neither of him nor of Stratford. Its opening had been postponed on account of an injury suffered by D’Silva in rehearsal. It would have been better if it had never opened at all.