Third to open in Shakespeare’s Globe’s The Edges Of Rome season is Antony And Cleopatra, Shakespeare’s history of the political powers of Egypt and Rome and the passion between Roman soldier Antony and the decadent Queen Cleopatra. With lightning flashing over head and thunderstorms threatening, the scene was appropriately set for the first night of this battle between the superpowers. Caroline Bishop was there…
Frances Barber seems in her element playing Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra. She throws herself about the stage like she’s the Queen of the Globe, cavorting with her female companions, summoning and dismissing courtiers, playing a childish game of cat and mouse with her lover Marc Antony, and ultimately having a lot of fun. Barber’s Cleopatra is a passionate free spirit, a manipulative temptress, a highly sexed, high maintenance drama queen. Her Marc Antony (Nicholas Jones), though more pompous than passionate, also enjoys a spot of high drama – proving his love for Cleopatra by kissing her at length in front of the court, going into battle against his former triumvir Octavius Caesar (Jack Laskey), and attempting, rather ineptly, to kill himself when he believes Cleopatra has done the same.
It is Cleopatra who commands the first half of this production, with some particular scenes leaving the audience at Shakespeare’s Globe in stitches. Her violent and impassioned reaction against the poor messenger who brings the news from Rome that Antony has married Caesar’s prim sister Octavia (Pascale Burgess) is hilarious, and shows that she is not a woman to be spurned. All womankind can recognise her subsequent interrogation of the messenger as to Octavia’s attributes – “dwarfish and dull” being Cleopatra’s bitchy conclusion.
Equally identifiable is the boys’ knees-up at Pompey’s place, which is played out in the manner of a stag do or a post-World Cup match bender, the men dancing on tables, singing and drinking until they fall over.
As with all Globe productions, Dominic Dromgoole’s staging uses the whole space and makes the audience part of the action. The descriptions of battle scenes are accompanied by the sound of drums in the distance, encasing the theatre in the atmosphere of battle. Mike Britton’s design uses a sumptuous palette of muted autumnal colours to dress Antony, Cleopatra and their followers – only Caesar is a contrast in pale robes.
The events played out in the second half result in the tragedy of Antony attempting to kill himself (after his soldiers refuse to do the deed for him), only to find out that Cleopatra is actually still alive. He is brought to her monument and dies in her arms. Jones however, does not play these scenes with the sense of tragedy you may expect – in fact the scene where Antony does not have the guts to stab himself and leaves the task half finished is played for laughs. Cleopatra’s suicide is more dramatic. Like the drama queen she is, she refuses to tow Caesar’s line and, dressed in all her finery, chooses a deadly snake bite as the way to go. The production finishes as it starts, with the woman ruling the day – and the play.