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 cunnilingus on Frances de la Tour's serpent of old Nile. This time, the brouhaha has been brewed offstage. Sinead Cusack, Cleopatra in Michael Attenborough's new production, allegedly branded the town's audiences a bunch of "boring old fogeys". Residents threatened to protest against her at the premiere.
Theatre-goers who hoped to witness Ms Cusack lynched on the first night will have been disappointed. Theatre-goers who hoped to see a stirring staging of this tricky tragedy will have felt slightly less short-changed. This is a patchy production with flurries of authentic vitality, though hampered by a fussy design.
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. This heroine, while canny and cunning, is more a creature of instinct. Cusack looks terrific in jade-coloured trousers and a wig of black ringlets, but her performance applies the sugar-tongs of irony when you wish it would just abandon itself to 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 we have seen in recent years. A beautiful, grizzled bear of a man, he is excellent at communicating Antony's sozzled generosity of spirit and scorching sense of shame. He can shift in a second from ecstatic fury at Cleopatra to self-parodying infatuation. In his dealings with Stephen Campbell-Moore's priggish, boy-like Caesar, he suicidally revels in rubbing this rival's nose in his limitedness. The revels on Pompey's galley become a hissing, spitting tribal dance, overtly designed to advertise to this prissy, thin, fanatical Caesar his own lack of balls. Wilson's Antony is inclined to grab him in hugs that are more reminiscent of wrestling triumphs than friendly embraces.
The text has been unduly cut and some sections feel under-cooked. For example, in the final sequence, this production omits the pointedly embarrassing episode with Cleopatra's treasurer Seleucus, who reveals that she has kept some of her riches in reserve. It furnishes an important moment of uncomfortable comedy calculated to keep the heroine's progress towards eventual apotheosis characteristically impure and elusive – tragedy smudged with something less high-minded. It's a paradox, too, that productions that shed intriguing features such as this can often feel every bit as long as those that don't. But it's early days: we should remember that Attenborough's memorable account of Othello ripened remarkably between Stratford and its London transfer.
To 13 July (01789 403403).Reuse content