Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Janet Suzman
Reviewer: Jane Pink
“We think that Cleopatra was in and out of every famous bed in the known world, due to Octavius Caesar’s efficient spin-machine … which set out to ruin her reputation and totally succeeded” says director Janet Suzman of Cleopatra and we may well come to her story with inbuilt prejudices, but in this elegant production her reputation is justifiably restored. Antony and Cleopatra’s passionate, wild, reckless relationship is in its last days. That Antony is completely enthralled with the Egyptian queen is evident in both his language and bearing, yet we remain unsure of her true feelings for him. There is a marked difference between her attitude to Antony in his presence and in his absence. Her delight in their passionate nights is evident as is the disdain with which she treats him in the day. She seems most in love with him when he is away, extolling his virtues and agonizing over his new marriage, as she tries to balance the emotional and political elements of her life.
Peter McKintosh’s simply beautiful set facilitates a seamless transition between scenes. Lanterns and gold embellished textiles reveal the sumptuous excesses of the Egyptian palace; metal ladders, gates and walkways lend a military resonance; and clever use of levels suggests the cold, hidden darkness of Cleopatra’s tomblike monument. Lighting, sound and music by Paul Pyant, Sebastian Frost and Corin Buckeridge respectively are used to great effect throughout to create and sustain a sense of drama, and to evoke both ancient Egypt and Rome. Predominantly monochrome costumes, punctuated by coloured signifiers of status, allegiance and military rank help the audience follow the action that, without knowledge of this period in history, may otherwise be complicated. I also enjoyed a nod to the 1920s Art Deco Egyptian Revival in many of the costumes and accessories.
Kim Cattrall captures the sexual power of Cleopatra without resorting to cliché. The Queen was thirty nine when she died, and Cattrall portrays her as an experienced, intelligent woman frustrated by those around her, clear about her own desires and ambitions and willing to go to her death to avoid political compromise. Michael Pennington’s Mark Antony is enthralled with the charismatic and powerful Queen, never more so than in the opening scenes when he dances for and with her, tinkling finger bells as he drifts across the stage in softly draped Egyptian cotton robes. The relationship between the two is captivating. Pennington’s portrayal is earthy and honest and plays against the stereotypical Hollywood image of Mark Antony. Equally Cattrall’s Cleopatra is poles apart from her well-known television persona, and she embraces the Shakespearean dialogue with wit and warmth. There are strong supporting performances from all cast members, with Martin Hutson’s brittle yet merciless Octavius Caesar being an undoubted highlight. Aicha Kossoko as Charmian allows us a glimpse of both Cleopatra’s cruelty and vulnerability and Harmage Singh Kalirai’s mystical soothsayer quietly adds a sense of the magical.
This co-production with Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse closes this year’s Chichester Festival and is an undoubted highlight. Benefitting from having played the rôle of Cleopatra herself, Janet Suzman’s production brings depth to Cleopatra’s story and portrays vividly both the end of a tumultuous relationship and of a political era in Rome brought about by the death of Mark Antony. This is a long play, and a reading of the historical context before watching it is undoubtedly helpful but much of the success and joy of this production is in its ability to take the audience along with the story and to reveal the human side of two of history’s most well known characters.
Runs until September 29th 2012