THEATRE; A bit of a beauty and the beast

Antony and Cleopatra The Riverside, London
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The Independent Culture
Vanessa Redgrave's Antony and Cleopatra starts off as the kind of production that engenders a dubious response. The set resembles one of the National Theatre's Cardboard City creations, with torn and charred books scattered over a ruined staircase, and an old man wrapped in a blanket. The casting call might have been held at the United Nations, what with black and white Romans and Eyptians speaking in French, Scottish and gypsy- restaurant accents. Some speak the verse for sense, some for music and some for neither.

The sumptuous costumes, however, (Redgrave is credited with the "design concept") are all early 17th century, with stately stiff bodices, ruffs and farthingales for the women, lace-doily collars and black knee-breeches for the men.

Redgrave's staging is also elegant and dramatic, the first half particularly full of effective movement, such as a dance in which one soldier uses the camouflage of sweeping gestures to slip a knife between another's ribs. The Romans, in general, speak verse with clarity and dignity, especially the Caesar of Howard Saddler and the Agrippa of Ewart James Walters. The best reason, though, to see this Moving Theatre production is not the director but the star.

Pointing a long, reproving finger at Antony, striding and romping, golden ribbons waving from her sleeves, Redgrave's Cleopatra is half hoyden, half pirate queen. At times she is too noisy and too girlish, but a brief flirtation scene more than makes amends, as, nearly silent and nearly still, she gives her admirer a gentle, pitying smile. Her broken, gorgeous words over Antony's body are the speech of a woman dazed with shock yet every inch a queen, and, after taking a real and wriggling snake to her breast, she lies quite convincingly dead, raising not even a flutter on a costume that looks like the madwoman of Chaillot's bridal gown.

Redgrave dead, however, acts better than Paul Butler alive. This bulky Antony, a nearly bald greybeard in a kaftan, is a slow-moving, mellow conqueror and lover, saying, "I must from this enchanting queen break off" as if reminding himself to get the plumbing mended. His laughter at the news that his wife is dead and, later, on hearing that Cleopatra lives just after he has stabbed himself believing her dead, implies a boldness of spirit that is not justified by the rest of the performance. It's understandable that Redgrave the actress wanted no competition, but Redgrave the director should have known better.

n Until 10 June at Riverside Studios (0181 741 2255)

Rhoda Koenig