First Night: A let-down of a long evening

Antony and Cleopatra RSC Stratford-upon-Avon
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The Independent Online
STEVEN PIMLOTT's new Royal Shakespeare Company staging of Antony and Cleopatra begins with a graphic, if rather dutiful-looking, bout of cunnilingus between Shakespeare's middle-aged lovebirds. One would hesitate to call this a tongue-in-cheek opening exactly and it shows who is wearing the harem-trousers in this relationship. But it's also not the only time during this long evening that the irreverent thought crosses your mind that a production offering Frances de la Tour as Antony and Alan Bates as the wily "Serpent of Old Nile" would be even more worth catching.

After the debacle of last year's disastrous National Theatre version the RSC looked to be on a hiding to everything with this version. But it fails to be quite the cathartic exorcism of its predecessor that one had hoped for. It is more imaginative, even if the imagination often feels misapplied.

One of its curiosities is that each of the play's long catalogue of suicides calmly rises, at the moment of death, and walks off. Ah, you think, this is so that the stage will be left to the dying Cleopatra. But no, she too does a bunk, after doffing her crown and cloak. Here, interestingly enough, she sceptically absents from her own apotheosis.

All this premature exiting looks as if it might set a dangerous precedent for the audience, for what this interpretation is driving at takes a long time to come into focus, as do the main performances.

Bates is a dab hand these days at suggesting menopausal glamour and an intriguing past. Unfortunately, it's as a faded former head of Classics rather than as a moulting lion of the Roman army that he would convince. De la Tour transfixes in the final act when, with her chestnut mop scraped into a hairnet and her face devoid of make-up, she confronts post-Antony existence looking frighteningly old and vulnerable.

This movingly emphasises the obstacles she has to surmount before the ultimate transcendence. For long stretches, though, you feel that it would be more entertaining to see this dry, quizzical pair as George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which is a pretty back-handed compliment.