A few minutes into the press-night performance of Antony and Cleopatra at the Swan, the proceedings were brought to a halt by a fire-alarm evacuation of the building. At that point, this was the most exciting thing that had happened in the RSC's Complete Works Festival, which had opened on the previous evening with an ill-spoken and laboriously unconventional Romeo and Juliet.
"The critics will be able to say that the acting set the house alight," the director, Greg Doran, joked in a brief, gracious announcement from the stage before his production resumed. And that, metaphorically speaking, is precisely what his cast went on to do. Every performance glows with insight in this rich and deeply rewarding account of the play.
The repertory of the festival is designed to create stimulating juxtapositions, as in the current conjunction of two tragedies where passionate love - youthful in the one, middle-aged in the other - ends in a double suicide. Inevitably, though, the rep is also going to provoke invidious comparisons.
It's not so much that Antony and Cleopatra - in which character and calamity, the personal and the political, are inextricably linked - highlights the disappointing degree to which the earlier tragedy depends on accident. The damaging contrast is in the way the plays have been staged.
Where the new Romeo and Juliet in the main house feels inflated and unconfident, hedging its bets and sidestepping the problems posed by the space with a framing device that just gets in the way, Doran's Antony and Cleopatra is perfectly proportioned for the Swan and achieves a terrific directness by purging the proceedings of kitschy spectacle and scenic excess.
No director is better able to harness this theatre's ability to be simultaneously intimate and epic. A sense of the global stakes in the drama is vividly - and economically - signalled by the grim, map-like formation of dried plaster splattered on to the glass screen at the back. The restless shifts between Egypt and Rome are registered, with maximum fluency and minimal fuss, by simple switches of colour in the light thrown against this surface.
The resources of the Swan are used with a thrilling imaginativeness that never results in the merely showy. There's a wonderful moment when a chunk of the uppermost balcony is hydraulically lowered to produce a lofty aerial vision of Cleopatra's monument, where she waits with her handmaidens while the dying Antony is hoisted to her in a sling.
But Doran is able to give the love scenes the close focus of chamber drama. Harriet Walter's astonishing performance makes you question the conventional perception that the heroine is wholly instinctive and endlessly sly. Witty and reeking of class (a sort of wily serpent of old Garsington), Walter manages to convey the capricious cunning and the contradictoriness of Cleopatra, while also suggesting both a sharp intelligence and the strong possibility that under all the layers of self-dramatisation is an authentic core of deep devotion to Antony.
After his death, the desperate need to preserve his grandiose myth in her mind imparts an extraordinary depth of beseeching to the tone in which she asks an embarrassed soldier: "Think you there was or might be such a man as this I dreamt of?" If one wishes Patrick Stewart had tackled Antony when he was 10 years younger, his is a powerful and moving performance, particularly in the projection of the hero's scalding shame and the sad, forced gaiety he struggles to muster with his followers, despite knowing that the game is up and death is now the only destination.
There isn't a weak link in a cast that includes John Hopkins as a repressive and repressed Octavius. The production whets the appetite for Doran's Coriolanus, coming later in the festival.
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