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
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
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.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?