A world well lost

Antony and Cleopatra Bridewell Theatre, off Fleet Street, London
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The Independent Culture
The Bridewell Theatre, just a stone's throw from Fleet Street, used to be a Victorian bath-house and still retains many aspects of its former identity. Added to these at the moment is the sunken blue pool that is a central feature of Carol Metcalfe's new production of Antony and Cleopatra. This isn't always an unalloyed asset but there are times when it genuinely earns its keep. "Here is my space," proclaims the hero in Scene 1, rejecting the summons back to Rome (and to duty) by obstinately stepping into this watery Egyptian amenity in his kaftan. The magniloquence of his speech and the somewhat schoolboy defiance of the gesture create a nicely mixed effect.

The pool comes in even handier for emphasising Antony's almost farcically botched suicide. Fooled by the false report that Cleopatra has killed herself, Jonathan Oliver's Antony falls not just onto his sword but also into the water, which is then bathed in red light and which, for a protracted few seconds, appears to have become his grave. But the elegiac mood is rudely broken when he is forced to re-surface, his attempt at a noble death collapsing in sodden indignity like some failed stunt. Only by the glorious self-transcendence of Cleopatra's own eventual suicide can restitution be made for this bungling.

Oliver is much the best actor in this staging, which Metcalfe has set in 1942. Neither he nor his Cleopatra (Alphonsia Emmanuel) are in the first or even second flush of youth but - for a play that focuses, with more than a touch of satire, on middle-aged love - you need actors who look like veterans of venery and quite a bit more battered by time and experience than this pair. There's not enough abandonment or embarrassing extravagance here in their expressions of love. We are treated to one arousing moment when Oliver worshippingly adjusts the tie, belt and trousers of the male khaki uniform his lover has donned, but for the most part you miss the sense of exhibitionistic amorous display. Beautiful, long- limbed and capable at times of ringingly eloquent verse delivery, Ms Emmanuel is a striking Cleopatra, but not a fascinating, witty or tantalising one.

Metcalfe intriguingly ends the first half with a spotlight on the isolated, pensively unhappy figure of Ruth Bennett's Octavia - a stage-picture that accentuates her role as pawn in the power game between her husband Antony and her brother Octavius Caesar, who, in Angus Hubbard's performance, comes over as an unusually repellent, cold, priggish school prefect. A wider sense of the unlovely self-interest and public decadence that fill the world of this play - where war is the continuation by other means of personal vendettas and where the political survival of the military top brass is a higher priority than defeating the enemy - can't be fully transmitted in a scaled-down production with a cast of only eight.

The design doesn't help. The three triangular movable platforms of Bridget Kimak's set trap the action in too confined a space (a bit like staging Aida on an Olympic medalist's rostrum), giving this most restless of plays a curiously static feel. A decent but disappointing evening.

To 3 May. Box-office: 0171-936 3456