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)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz