Eyebrows were hoisted sceptically a year ago by the appointment of Dominic Dromgoole as Mark Rylance's successor as artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe. A new writing specialist - and someone whose sole professional foray into Bardic territory (an ill-starred Troilus and Cressida for Oxford Stage Company) was, by his own admission, a bit of a "car crash" - seemed, to some, odd casting for the job. But his first season at the Bankside theatre is forcing the doubters to re-think. Certainly, no one can accuse him of having taken the easy option.
Under the title "The Edges of Rome", the Shakespeare component of a season that will eventually include new work by Simon Bent and Howard Brenton comprises three of the most challenging plays in the canon. Dromgoole kicked off with his own lucid, fluent and persuasive account of Coriolanus, a harsh, uncompromising play with a crowd-hating hero whom it is hard to tolerate, let alone like. He has produced Lucy Bailey's excellent Titus Andronicus - to my mind, probably the best production in the Globe's 10 years and one which makes good the innovation of putting a canvas roof over the courtyard to thicken the claustrophobic atmosphere. A pleasure afforded by this venue is that, in a sense, you get two plays for the price of one. You watch the actors and you watch the audience.
A particular pleasure of Dromgoole's first season is witnessing the degree of concentration it seems to elicit from the groundlings because it treats them with a new respect. You feel this powerful involvement again watching his Elizabethan-dress Antony and Cleopatra, which shuttles not just between Rome and Egypt, but between the intimate and the epic, the high romantic and the low ridiculous.
Yes, it's an uneven production. Almost self-denyingly spare, it is low on spectacle and, before it comes into its own as Cleopatra's monument, the custom-built, lofty little platform, supported by four pillars, provides an awkward alternative acting area, because it seems to be all steps and no proper destination. Nicholas Jones's very English, urbanely intelligent Antony looks and sounds as though he hails from a genial career at the Bar rather than from a military past. There are times where the energy flags (though it's an excellent notion to suggest the battles through a tumult off-stage, with the actors surrounding the Globe building and threatening to burst in through its doors).
The overall effect, however, is very impressive. Frances Barber is a wonderfully comic and commanding Cleopatra. At the opposite extreme from Harriet Walter, who is currently playing the role as a rather classy, wily "serpent of old Garsington" at Stratford, Barber gives us 110 per cent as a camp, actressy, slightly common Egyptian queen. Her capricious switches of tack are hilariously swift and brazenly transparent. With the short fuse of a fishwife, she smashes her billiard cue, wreaking grievous bodily harm on the poor messenger who brings her bad news. You could imagine her saying: "Give me my robe. Put on my crown. And while you're about it, darling, could you pop out and get me some ciggies and this week's The Stage." And yet you always feel that there are depths to this woman, held in reserve and revealed here in the transporting fervour with which Barber intones Cleopatra's poetic tributes to Antony after his death.
The production valuably stresses the comic indignities that have to be gone through before the play achieves tragic closure. Antony's botched suicide reminds you of Bottom in the "Pyramus and Thisbe" interlude as he tries out angles for his sword and then trips over on to it. It's as though the mix-ups of Romeo and Juliet are being recycled as middle-aged farce. With some fine supporting performances (from Fred Ridgeway as a sad, eloquent Enobarbus and Jack Laskey, who is all slicked down Napoleon hair and boyish arrogance as Octavius), this is another success for Dromgoole's Globe. It may not appeal to purists, but then purism and Shakespeare are, by and large, antithetical terms.
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