Catherine McClements stars as the one Queen to rule them all in this new production by Bell Shakespeare
The space between Rome and Egypt has shrunk into nothingness in Bell Shakespeare’s new production of Antony and Cleopatra, only the company’s second in its 28-year history. The action all takes place in a singular, curved space. You could call it a luxe Oval Office and be pretty close to the mark: this is The West Wing-ified Shakespeare: language first, feeling second.
Antony (Johnny Carr, straightforward) rules the Roman Empire from within a triumvirate consisting of himself, Octavius (Gareth Reeves) and Lepidus (Jo Turner). These facts are helpfully introduced by projected title cards over a transparent curtain that is opened and closed to differentiate between scenes. Later, those projections will go a little far – the word ‘WAR’ is backgrounded by shocking red lights and starts to pulsate, like a word-art gif – but they really do help to situate this contemporary audience within the BC action of the play.
Antony is away from Rome often because he’s seeing Cleopatra (Catherine McClements, giving the role a wry twist), though in director Peter Evans’ production it seems to be more an intellectual match than, as the text suggests, one of passion: they wear similar black suits (designed by Anna Cordingley, who also designed the set) and negotiate their relationship like they do battle strategies – with quick decisions and steamrolling delivery.
However, Cleopatra is only truly allowed to be governed by her emotions, while Antony is given more space to ‘rule.’ This production is really more Antony’s than it is Cleopatra’s: he speaks more, catalyses more action, and has more time in the spotlight; Cleopatra is his sound emotional anchor and counterpoint, but feels like a supporting character in Antony’s drama. This, and the supporting, dual or triple character roles played by Lucy Goleby and Ursula Mills who eventually, quite literally, fade into the background, raises the question whether Bell Shakespeare’s aim for gender parity onstage – having the same amount of women and men onstage in 2018 – goes far enough to improve or challenge the quality of women’s roles in Shakespeare. Putting women in small roles doesn’t change the way women are treated in the Bard’s plays – which is frequently with derision and imbued with hysteria – and instead highlights the way male characters are favoured with emotional complexity while women are in service to them, or vanquished by them.
Their love is interrupted by the offstage death of Fulvia, Antony’s wife; his new marriage to the blandly subservient Octavia (Mills); the political machinations of Pompey (Goleby, all newsreader charm and power – you almost wish the play followed her Pompey instead) and Octavius – all the goings-on of their ruling lives. But their love is buoyed, challenged, and explored via their allyship with servants, assistants and confidants Alexis (Janine Watson), Enobarbus (Ray Chong Nee, who brings the humour), and Charmian (Zindzi Okenyo, who brings the party – and a haunting singing voice).
Evans’ production is muted and word-heavy, too wrapped up in the balancing acts of powers to bring this great romance to the fore and to really explore, as the program notes suggest, the play’s fascination with women in positions of power. Instead, the life of Antony and Cleopatra’s characters are lived onstage on flashes of emotion, rather than a continuum; to make a point, characters shift their bodies on one of the plush chairs onstage or rise to their feet, supine to upright and back again when the scene demands.
Benjamin Cisterne’s lighting is gently evocative until the very end of the play, where the mood shifts into rolling, regretful tragedy – bright colours burst through alongside a sudden, driving change to Max Lyandvert’s score and sound design. Suddenly, the ensemble dances. Suddenly, now that there is nothing left to lose, the characters have remembered to be human.
It’s just a bit late; the text-first approach of the preceding two hours weighs this production down with logistics, rather than the emotional journey guiding it. Without that touchstone of feeling that lets Shakespeare hold on to relevance hundreds of years after his death to cling to, this production, despite looking great and packed with interesting performers, feels cold.