“Antony and Cleopatra” by William Shakespeare

at the Courtyard Theatre, Tuesday 13th April 2010

Firstly, a disclaimer; the production which is being reviewed was the first preview performance and so should not be taken as true to the rest of the run. That said, however, the cast and creative team will surely not be angered when it is said that the RSC have done it again. Michael Boyd’s modern dress production is at once engaging and exciting and the ensemble once again pull off superb performances.

Boyd has chosen to set the play in the modern age, making allusions to war in the middle east and the petty rivalry between various countries. The soldiers wear khaki whilst Cleopatra and her handmaids a wardrobe ranging from trench coats to embroidered gowns. It is clear the allusions that Boyd is trying to make to modern warfare, a fact which is reinforced by a picture of Brown and Obama in the programme, but it seems this concept just falls short. The war is fought over people and relationships, not land and oil. Much of the fighting takes place at sea also, which is not true of modern warfare in the middle east. The concept should work in theory, but ends up asking more questions than it answers.

A theme which is encapsulated beautifully is the camaraderie and brutality of men when together. At Antony’s ‘stag’ party, the men act without thought to those around them and engage in competitions to see who can hold the most drink. Perhaps the fastest paced scene in the play, it is punctuated by a beautiful moment of stillness as the men sway slowly from left to right, mirroring perfectly the feeling of being intoxicated by alcohol.

What the play seems to lack, however, is a sense of tragedy. Kathryn Hunter’s Cleopatra and Darrel D’Silva’s Antony are perfectly matched and both inhabit their roles with finesse, but the high stakes of their relationship and a feeling of impending doom do not come across. The last few scenes are not fraught with tension or danger and just plod along to their inevitable conclusion.

The design of the production is beautifully simple and yet creates a vast array of different layers. Tom Piper’s set, a semi-circular rusted wall at the back reminiscent of the set used for the Histories Cycle can one minute be the sand dunes of Egypt and the forum in Rome with tweaks in Wolfgang Goebbel’s superb lighting design. James Jones and John Woolf’s music and Andrew Franks’ sound are layered sublimely, supporting changes in mood and peaks in tension throughout the play.

Although there are weak points to this production, they will no doubt be ironed out by the time it opens officially. What is clear, however, is that Michael Boyd has well and truly settled into his role as artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. His approach to ensemble acting and new spaces is nothing short of revolutionary. The repertoire of plays he has built up along with the help of David Farr, Lucy Bailey and Rupert Goold is inspiring. Let’s hope this carries on long into the future.

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