Antony And Cleopatra, Novello Theatre, London


Lovers excel in frenetic staging

When the RSC's Much Ado About Nothing transferred from Stratford-upon-Avon to the West End last month, queues formed for returns. Now Antony and Cleopatra, which got the Complete Works season off to a rollicking good start back in April, arrives in London. There is no reason that this gripping production should not achieve the same feat.

Gregory Doran's relentlessly pacey production bestrides comedy, tragedy, history and politics; having moved from the intimate Swan, it easily fills its larger, gilded surroundings at the Novello. Driven along by Adrian Lee's frenetic score of taiko drum beats and whinnying horns, the action rarely lets up and the actors hit the stage running at the start of every scene, ready to attack.

Their swift progress is helped along by Stephen Brimson Lewis' simple but effective set. A splodgy approximation of a map acts as the backdrop, changing colour according to location, in harmony with the colour-coded costumes, from Egyptian gold to Tyrian purple and, during battle, blood red.

The lack of specific geographical details in the setting acts as a reminder that Shakespeare's play is more concerned with the personal - an eternal love, the irresistible power of a woman - than with any political narrative.

Harriet Walter and Patrick Stewart are excellent as the eponymous lovers. From the opening scenes, their childish chemistry erases the years as they tickle, whip, pet and devour one another, more often than not in front of their embarrassed retinue. The game of sexual cat and mouse played out in the first half of the play has more than a touch of farce about it, with entrances and exits coming in dizzying succession and some heavy-handed innuendo.

Walter is not immediately striking as the Egyptian queen, lacking in the stature and sultriness traditionally associated with the role, but when she reclines in her luminous gold cloak, she really does take on the bewitching mystery of a Sphinx. Her capriciousness is a joy to behold, a petulant moue etched permanently on her face, she delivers her frequently contradictory lines with the necessary quick-fire verve.

When she is absent from the stage, a macho air prevails, particularly in the revels scene when the gathered males beat out the intoxicating rhythms of their drinking songs on a swaying barge. Doran's production has a high degree of camp, with oiled bare chests, muscly legs clad in leather boots, studded cuffs and a knowing humour penetrating most scenes. It points out the irony that for all their political posturing, their war comes down to a battle to win fair maiden and their undoing comes at the hands of a diminutive, crop-haired woman.

Stewart is eminently watchable, proving himself more than worthy of the promotion to leading man, having played Enobarbus to Alan Howard's Antony in Peter Brook's 1978 production at the RSC. His Antony is mercurial, moving effectively from playboy general, giddy with lust and power, to an ageing drunk in a sweat-stained tunic, rocking on his heels and cradling his head in his hands as he loses his self-control.

Conversely, John Hopkins' Octavius visibly grows up on stage; from a callow, nervy wannabe, prone to panicky decision-making, he transforms into a powerful leader of men, concerned with his historical legacy. Around them, there is not one weak link; every member of the cast making Shakespeare's language come alive.

In the second half comes the headlong rush towards the final tragedy. But in Doran's arch production, Antony's death is tinged with black comedy. As his near lifeless body is winched up to Cleopatra's monument - his queen holding sway over him even in his final moments - he tries in vain to get a dying word in. Cleopatra's death on the other hand, a masterclass in delayed gratification by the playwright coming two scenes after that of her beloved, has all the poise and beauty of tragedy. The moment, when it finally arrives, is suitably majestic and dripping in gold.

Until 17 Feb (0870 950 0940)

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