Antony and Cleopatra
by William Shakespeare
11th - 15th May, 2004
The Tower Theatre performing Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate
Antony : Stephen Brown
Pompey : Alexander Gordon-Wood
Enobarbus : John Morton
Agrippa : Harry Stern
Cleopatra : Karen Walker
Review by Richard Dunn
Tony, Cleo and I go back a long way. It's 40 years since I studied the play for A Level, and I still have a fondness for them. The characters weren't that far removed from that of my Newcastle adolescence. Tony was a randy over-the-hill hero who'd lost the plot, (quite resonant in the home town of Gazza), and that Cleo! Phwoar!
This all came flooding back as Stephen Brown and Karen Walker sidled onto the stage, clearly unable to keep their hands off each other. Immediately we were into a world of sensuality, helped enormously by David Taylor's set, which was all velvets and satins in deep shades of red, purple and gold, enhanced by the purple filters of Nick Insley's subtle lighting design. The music, too, was exotic and strange, (sound Laurence Tuerk, percussion Peta Barker), and you understood why Antony, like some bewitched tourist, could lose his former self in a sort of elevated holiday romance. Smoke leaked into the auditorium from underneath the central platform, adding a final touch of heat and hazy decadence to the stage picture.
Director Penny Tuerk pruned the cast. Instead of Shakespeare's 34 named characters, we had only 16, with some doubling, so that the total cast was only 13. As well as making the production more manageable, this again aided clarity greatly, as well as giving the supporting cast plenty to do. Only the doubling of Mardian the eunuch with young Pompey, did not work, despite the skilled vocal efforts of Alexander Gordon-Wood. Pompey appeared so quickly after Mardian's departure and Mr Gordon-Wood's appearance is so conspicuous that it was impossible to suspend disbelief. I also thought it was a mistake to put white carnival masks on some of the actors when they were doubling minor roles, as it jarred with the naturalism of the rest of the production.
Among the supporting cast, Terry Matthews was perfectly cast as the gentle peacemaker Lepidus, and did his best with the hopeless role of the clown who delivers the asp to Cleopatra - the one occasion where Shakespeare's characteristic mix of humour and tragedy does not work. Geoff Braman made the role of Maecenas sing with his rich baritone voice, and Harry Stern, whilst not the finest reciter of poetry, reacted convincingly in every scene he appeared in. Indeed the entire company was alive and present every moment they were on stage. I would single out Barbara Matthews and Rebecca Forrow as Charmian and Iras in particular. They delivered their lines impeccably, but I also admired their alertness in scenes where they had little to do but stand and listen.
The Roman scenes, by contrast, were cool, and un-smoky, and lit more starkly to match the cerebral world of duty and statecraft inhabited by Octavius Caesar. Douglas McDiarmid played Octavius as the C.E.O. of Rome plc, the great multi-national with a major problem in their Alexandria branch. Like all of the actors in this excellent production, he made total sense of the text, brought great light and shade to his delivery, and portrayed the intellectual, responsible character of the soon-to-be emperor impeccably.
Penny Tuerk (to whom much praise), had subbed the text down ruthlessly with an eye to the production's visit to Paris and to simplifying the narrative. We may have lost the odd bit of poetry, but when Shakespeare provides so much, you can afford to. The result was that the production focused sharply on the destructive things love can do: most obviously on the passion of Antony and Cleopatra who die for having loved too much, but also on the deep (asexual) affection of Enobarbus for Antony. John Morton brought real pathos to Enobarbus' final scene, where Antony's kindness in sending the old soldier's belongings after him despite his desertion, breaks the old soldier's heart.
Chris Holmes was not angry enough for me in Philo's speech that opens the play, complaining at Antony having become "the bellows and the fan / to cool a gipsy's lust," but he brought gravitas to the role as the play progressed. Similarly, I found Martin Jackson's Eros a little cold to begin with, but was truly moved when he committed suicide rather than kill his master.
But what about the principals? As well as bringing the requisite sexiness and intelligence to Cleopatra, Karen Walker played up the Egyptian queen's qualities as an actress, aided by more costume changes than I have ever seen at the Tower. (Brilliant design here by Noreen Spall, and sterling work by the wardrobe team). Cleopatra is constantly playing a part; using an actress's skills to beguile her men, but also as part of her political armoury. At first, I thought Karen was relishing the role slightly too much, but as the evening progressed, I realised that the Joan Collins moments at the beginning were an essential preparation for the final moments when real emotions overwhelm the Egyptian queen.
The role of Antony is a difficult one. We have to admire the depth of his love for Cleopatra whilst sharing Antony's own view that his dalliance with her has robbed him of his honour by seducing him away from his duty to Rome. Stephen Brown, unrecognisable from his performance as the effete, eccentric Dali in Terry Johnson's Hysteria, inhabited the part completely. From his sturdy calves to his curly beard he was every inch the soldier, but sensuality sparkled from his eyes and seeped from every gesture when in the presence of Cleopatra. He spoke the lines with total comprehension and an ear to their poetry, and he performed quite simply the most convincing death scene I have ever seen on stage. Slumped in Cleopatra's arms after his final speech, he was clearly still alive, but then, without any apparent movement of face or body, his spirit was gone. I don't know how Stephen Brown performed that particular piece of acting alchemy, but it was immensely moving. As was the whole production. Another triumph for the Tower!