Antony and Cleopatra, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

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The Independent Culture

For his 60th production for the Royal Exchange, Braham Murray has taken on the big issues of sex and power in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.

For his 60th production for the Royal Exchange, Braham Murray has taken on the big issues of sex and power in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. Even with some cuts, it is powerfully theatrical in its bold depiction of physical and mental confrontation.

Big issues call for big actors, and to play Cleopatra, Murray has bagged a tiger in Josette Bushell-Mingo. Magnificent in her statuesque bearing, compelling in her haughty demeanour and terrifying in her tantrums, Bushell-Mingo dominates the stage. Prowling and padding around her prey, purring dangerously, she is no kitten - as is obvious from her first appearance astride Antony at the end of one of their "gaudy nights". Quixotic in her violent mood-swings, horribly predatory when haunting him as a nightmare vision of death and grimly determined as she clasps the life-draining asp, Bushell-Mingo gives a mesmerising performance. She's larger than life; ruling Antony's heart and eventually his mind, and loftily duping Caesar by dying before he can parade her as a Roman trophy.

Antony is most sympathetically played by Tom Mannion; his patience tried by Cleopatra's needling. A figure of many dimensions, he is equally convincing as the hero weakened by wild infatuation, the warrior driven demented by ghostly visions and the man devastated by the magnitude of his miscalculations. He and his alluring "lustful harlot" are not a pair to allow the affairs of the world to get in the way of their passion - their intimate cavorting exposed in front of an ornamental winged scarab - which is made as public as their scorching quarrels and bitter misunderstandings.

Despite the simple clarity of Murray's staging, it is not without spectacle - from the synchronised rowing of the fleet to the vividly choreographed battle: ominous in its shadowy, chilly clashing. As the scenes shift from one geographical location to another, over a period of nine years, time bends. In the empty space at the centre of Johanna Bryant's set - with the spruce, silvery Rome one side, and the warmly lit, exotic decadence of Egypt on the other - pawns are heartlessly manipulated and rulers fall.

Of the rest of this uniformly involved cast, Terence Wilton is a sturdy Enobarbus, engaging in his description of Antony's first, fateful sight of Cleopatra sailing down the river Cydnus and wretched in his guilt-induced misery. The bond between Steven Robertson's callous Caesar and his puppet-like sister, Octavia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), adds a further twist.

Murray focuses on the play's uncomfortably relevant message as to what constitutes political success and, more importantly, what does not. Amidst machination, stubbornness in refusing advice, hot pursuit of revenge, needless in-fighting with allies and the corruption of honest men, it is the blind passion of star-crossed lovers that cause them to lose their judgement. All the frailties and fallibilities of human nature are contained within this tragedy, made blindingly clear in this striking production.

To 9 April (0161-833 9833)

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