The theatre gods have not been kind to the Globe’s new ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, which has managed to rack up an impressive casualty list thanks to a series of nasty bugs. Clive Wood, the show’s Antony, was off sick for most of the previews, and while he was back for press night, we were treated to a very game script-in-hand performance from Christopher Saul, subbing in for the ailing James Hayes’s trio of minor roles.
Nonetheless, if every member of the cast, bar Eve Best’s Cleopatra, were struck down, one suspects she’d pull it off somehow. This is only her second acting gig at the Globe – though she directed ‘Macbeth’ here last year – but already she feels like one of the theatre’s totemic actors. And her Egyptian queen is as good as you’d expect: funny, endearing, maddening, and above all, fabulously lucid.
Often, Cleopatra’s motives feel either obscure or attributable to some vague misogyny on Shakespeare’s part. But in Jonathan Munby’s production her wild mood swings and endless bickering with lover Antony are less the actions of a hysterical woman, more a rumbustious tug-of-love à la Beatrice and Benedick in ‘Much Ado’. At the very least, Best’s shiningly intelligent Cleo is no inconstant sexpot, but a politician in control of her own destiny. Her betrayals of Antony and subsequent suicide are framed as political gambles; it’s a great, thought-provoking performance.
And the rest of the production is no slouch. The Globe is the perfect place to emphasise the considerable jollity in the play, but rather than make ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ a clash between decadent Egyptians and efficient Romans, Munby uses Jacobean costume to frame ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ as a tussle of the English soul. The boyishly ruthless Octavius Caesar (an excellent Jolyon Coy) and his men dress and act like the Puritans who would scour England soon after the play was written; Best’s Cleopatra, Wood’s warm, expansive Antony (up to scratch despite his time off) and Phil Daniels’s raspy, human Enobarbus have the jolly air of the Restoration about them. It’s certainly not hard to pick a side.
A fine production, which brings Shakespeare’s gorgeously written melodrama down to earth in the best sort of way.
'Antony and Cleopatra' moves inside to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for two performances at the end of its run on Aug 31 and Sep 1.