Theatre: Misplaced imagination

STEVEN PIMLOTT's new RSC staging of Antony and Cleopatra begins with the middle-aged lovebirds in a graphic, if rather dutiful-looking, bout of cunnilingus. One would hesitate to call this a tongue-in-cheek opening and it sure as hell establishes who is wearing the harem-trousers in that relationship. But it's also not the only moment in the course of a long evening when the irreverent thought occurs that a production which gave us Frances de la Tour as Antony and Alan Bates as the wily "serpent of old Nile" would be even more worth catching.

After the instructive fiasco of last year's National Theatre version, starring Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman, the RSC may have taken comfort from the fact that they could hardly do worse. But this main stage production fails to be the glorious exorcism of its predecessor that one had hoped for. True, it is considerably more imaginative, though the imagination in it often feels misplaced. One of its curiosities is that each person in the play's succession of suicides calmly rises, at the moment of extinction, and walks off. Even Cleopatra does a bunk, after doffing her golden crown and cloak, from her own carefully stage-managed apotheosis.

If this epidemic of premature exiting, leaving only the husks behind, is supposed to suggest a haunting emptiness within the gaudy show of legend, then it is both heavy-handed and insufficiently alert to the potential comedy of it all. "Where's the Queen?" demands the guard who rushes into the suicide scene. Here, you expect the reply: "Oh, cripes, she was here a moment ago, honest..."

Yolanda Sonnabend's set is dominated by a curve of tilting screens that are both see-through and reflective. They could have been used to emphasise the narcissism of the lovers or, as with the translucent blood-splashed panels in Peter Brook's under-rated Stratford production, to violate any perceived barrier between the self-indulgent private sphere of the lovers and the violent consequences of that love in the world beyond.

But if any barrier is messily and unproductively broken down here, it is that between the worlds of Egypt and severe, black-garbed Rome. Despite a tartly amusing scene on Pompey's galley that threatens to escalate into a drunken homoerotic orgy (Guy Henry's comically prissy Octavius has to shake hands with an Antony whose trousers are, Brian Rix-style, round his ankles), the wider politics of the play are under-explored.

Never elusive enough, Frances de la Tour is transfixed in the final act when she confronts post-Antony existence, looking frighteningly old and vulnerable, her face devoid of make-up and her chestnut mop scraped into a hairnet, like an actress preparing for the transcendency scene in her dressing room.

Exuding low-level meno- pausal glamour and an ironic sense of failure, Alan Bates's Antony certainly suggests an intriguing past, though it's as the faded star of a classical studies department that he'd convince rather than as the moulting lion of the Roman army. Throughout the evening, I kept thinking how much I would like to see this pair play George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In the circumstances, a somewhat backhanded compliment.

Paul Taylor

Booking: 01789 295623. A version of this review appeared in later editions of Thursday's paper