Antony And Cleopatra, Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon

4.00

She stoops to conquer

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.

In rep to 14 October (0870 609 1110; www.rsccompleteworks.co.uk)

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past