In director Michael Boyd’s vision for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Antony & Cleopatra at the Roundhouse Theatre, a squadron of troops in camouflage and machine guns marches across the stage as a wiry Caesar (John Mackay) proclaims a “time of universal peace is near.” Costume supervisor Sarah Bowern’s blue boardroom suits distinguish Caesar and his train from the more martial and uniformed Antony (Darrell D’Silva). D’Silva’s barrel-chested Antony is the more physical of the two rivals, but it is Caesar’s slick manipulation that out-maneuvers Antony at every turn. The program prints a photograph of David Cameron and Barak Obama, implying an (easy) connection between Caesar’s bloodless-hands approach to governance and power wielding in our modern states.
Boyd’s production first ran in Stratford in April, but has transferred (along with other RSC productions such as King Lear, Winter’s Tale, and Romeo & Juliet) to the Roundhouse for a London winter season. The Roundhouse’s stage projects into the audience, allowing for seating on three sides of both the stalls and the circular gallery—an enclosed Globe. Tom Piper’s design uses copper tones to burnish the stage with evocations of the Egyptian sands. A tower structure, with swinging doors and retractable platform stands at the base of the stage, providing the setting for Cleopatra’s monument and proclamatory moments. At times, soldiers with guns stand in the upper circle, surrounding the audience, lending a disturbing air of violence and police-state to the production.
In contrast to the unsettling militarism of the triumvirate—Caesar, Antony, and the aging Lepidus (Sandy Neilson)—and the anarchist machinations of Pompey (Clarence Smith), Cleopatra’s Egypt is warm and fashionable. Nearly every scene features a costume change: think headscarves, shades, and accessory cigarettes. Kathryn Hunter’s Cleopatra is mercurial, shifting; she commands attention for her variability rather than a settled regalness. Her double-jointed arms and long fingers direct and instruct her changes of mood. When a messenger attempts to inform Cleopatra about Antony’s marriage to Caesar’s sister Octavia (Sophie Russell), Hunter plays a game of cat and mouse, at first understanding and then pulling a knife out of a sheath attached to her leg. Her anger cooled, the messenger returns, only to be confronted by a handgun swifted out of her throne—humorous touches, but revealing an underlying disquietude.
Cleopatra’s great love, Antony, as played by D’Silva, is a soldier’s soldier, though given to histrionics (his protracted death scene, complete with a hoist to carry him up to the tower platform, is overblown). Both Hunter and D’Silva present a believable couple, alternating between passionate love and passionate fights. Of the supporting cast, Brian Donherty creates a conflicted Enobarbus. Good-natured and jovial, his journey to betrayal is well conceived. As a verse speaker, Donherty captivates with his description of Antony’s first glimpse of Cleopatra: “The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne, / Burn’d on the water.” In a play which relies as much on descriptions of events as the enacting of them, the melding of speech and image results in artistic poetry. The rest of the play is populated by a seemingly limitless supply of soldiers and weaponry, the various interests distinguished by the color of the uniform.
Despite some strong performances (Hunter, especially, is magnetic), the show flags and becomes mired in unclear political wrangling. Who is double-timing whom, for what purpose, and why anyone should care is lost. While promoting an air of political critique, the production fails to make serious comment or leave a lasting impression. Some staging choices also fail to spark the imagination: slow-motion sequences and stylized dance fights are all a bit hackneyed and uninteresting. And then there is the appearance of the flapping blue sheet representing “the sea” during a naval battle (overheard: “cloth should be banned from the stage”). In short, the physicality of the performances remain in the mind afterward, but the production itself fails to provoke lingering thought.