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First Night: Antony And Cleopatra

Published 17 April 2008

Shakespeare's most lauded love story is undoubtedly the tale of Romeo And Juliet, yet the affair between Antony And Cleopatra sent ripples through the ancient world. The current RSC production, starring Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter in the title roles, was first seen at the Swan, Stratford in April 2006. Last night, following a tour to America, it took its London bow. Matthew Amer was at the Novello to see if anyone made an asp of themselves.

Mark Antony, under the gaze and direction of Cleopatra, is a man without cares, returning to the adolescent pursuit of chasing skirt. He does not strike you as an honoured soldier and member of the triumvirate ruling Rome. There lies the problem; while he enjoys a relationship with the alluring queen of Egypt, his followers and fellow rulers grow weary of his childish antics.

In Stewart's Antony we see a man in decline. Though he begins proceedings in flirtatious mood, as the piece goes on it becomes apparent that he is no longer the man he once was. It is not just that his judgement is impaired by overwhelming thoughts of love and lust, but that age is also taking its toll on a once great warrior. His regression is complete when, as he realises the truth, Cleopatra has to mother him.

This, in itself, is somewhat of an inversion, as Walter's Cleopatra is indeed a woman of 'infinite variety'. In being so, she assumes a child-like quality; every emotion felt is magnified ten-fold, though it may, and does, change at any moment. Her arch-manipulation, as a result, also hints at a child throwing a tantrum just to see what happens.

John Hopkins's Octavius Caesar, by years the junior of Antony and Cleopatra, also has a touch of the child about him. A petulant, angry and surly leader, he seems to want revenge on Antony for having shinier toys with more pomp than him. It leads to a confrontation that is more brotherly than worldly, each trying to get one over on the other, which lends itself to director Gregory Doran's more intimate production.

Ken Bones's loyal Enobarbus provides the adult of the relationship, adding advice whether wanted or not; his love of Cleopatra and her way of life, possibly as strong as that for Antony.

Doran's production dispenses with a lot of the opulence associated with Cleopatra, focussing rather on the story of a woman consumed with passion but not always thought, and a man in the waning of his glory. Stephen Brimson Lewis's set is minimal, yet the final scene conjures a picture of Cleopatra recognised by all, resplendent and peaceful in her regality.

Antony And Cleopatra is taking part in Get Into London Theatre. For information about reduced price theatre tickets, click here

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