Antony and Cleopatra, Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford

Bubble-wrapped Rome and Egypt by Stringfellows hamper a tricky tragedy
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

You can't accuse Stratford productions of Antony and Cleopatra of skirting controversy. The last time the play was done on the main stage there, Alan Bates's hero was discovered, in the opening scene, performing vigorous cunnilingus on Frances de la Tour's serpent of old Nile. Tongues wagged locally, as well.

This time, the brouhaha has been brewed offstage. Sinead Cusack, the Cleopatra in Michael Attenborough's new production, had provoked a commotion by allegedly branding the town's audiences a bunch of "boring old fogeys". Residents threatened to protest against her at the premiere.

Theatregoers who hoped to witness Ms Cusack drowning beneath a boiling tide of blue rinse or publicly lynched by an incensed rabble of Rotarians will have been disappointed by last night's proceedings. Only 15 protesters turned up and they stayed well clear of the actual performance.

Theatregoers who hoped to see a stirring staging of this tricky tragedy will have felt slightly less short-changed.

This is a patchy production which has flurries of authentic vitality and which is hampered by a fussy, messy design: severe Rome and a Stringfellows' version of Egypt are different-iated by a lighting trick that makes of the two curved walls a golden honeycomb for the sensuous exoticism of the latter and a barricade of sterile bubble-wrap for the formalities of the former. A ripped map of a sky is exploded apart in the battle scenes to reveal a distracting vista of stylised skeletal warriors.

Ms Cusack is a magnificent actress, but the role of Cleopatra does not play to her strengths. Her forte is for radiating passionate witty intellect and this heroine, while canny and cunning, is much more a creature of instinct. So while Cusack looks terrific in jade-coloured trousers and a wig of black ringlets, her performance applies the sugar-tongs of irony at points where you wish it would just abandon itself into prima-donna volatility.

Stuart Wilson, as Antony, delivers the verse in a rather high-pitched and strangulated manner, but physically and emotionally, he gives one of the best characterisations of the part in recent years.

A beautiful grizzled bear of a man, more than slightly gone to seed, he is excellent at communicating Antony's desperate, sozzled generosity of spirit and his scorching sense of shame. He can shift in a second from ecstatic fury at Cleopatra to a self-parodying matter-of-fact infatuation and in his dealings with Stephen Campbell-Moore's uptight priggish boy of a Caesar, he suicidally revels in rubbing this rival's nose in his limitedness.

The text has been unduly cut and there are sections which feel undercooked. But perhaps we should remember that Attenborough's memorable production of Othello ripened remarkably between Stratford and its London transfer.